New Bionic Ear Can Even Pick Up Your Favorite Radio Station
Jun 24, 2015
Robert J. Szczerba
For a while now, the combination of 3-D printing and electronics have allowed researchers to develop custom prosthetics for individuals afflicted with various disabilities. For example, it used to be that one of the treatments for microtia, the underdevelopment of the external ear, required either harvesting a piece of the patient’s rib or using a Styrofoam-like material to be constructed into the new external ear. Compared to 3-D printing, the prosthetics were not of high quality and the surgery seemed unnecessary to most. Children afflicted with microtia most commonly have a functioning inner ear but because of the underdevelopment of their outer ear, they still have hearing difficulties. Prosthetics, however, can improve their hearing and 3D printing can create custom plastic prosthetics for the patient that can fit right over the afflicted ear.
As 3-D printing has expanded into the bioprinting space, researchers are now starting to be able to develop “living prosthetics” made of cells rather than plastic. Prosthetics have become more life-like by using a biological scaffold onto which cartilage will grow. The prosthetic can then be transplanted onto the patient where it will function as a new outer ear. With further advancement in 3-D bioprinting, a patient’s own cells can be used for the development of the cartilage in order to reduce the chances that the transplant is rejected. In the video below, Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University, discusses how to create a living prosthetic ear.
This fascinating development in living prosthetics has just jumped to the next level, moving from a prosthetic ear to a bionic ear – a 3-D bioprinted prosthetic that actually has the ability to outperform human ears. By combining 3-D bioprinting and electronics, researchers at Princeton have developed a fully functional ear made of cartilaginous tissue that can detect signals outside of the normal human hearing range. To overcome the complex structure of the ear, researchers used 3-D bioprinting to build the organ out of cartilage on a hydrogel scaffolding layer by layer. The simultaneous incorporation of silver nanoparticles on the hydrogel scaffold formed the antennae.