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Researchers have constructed a living human ear that looks and feels just like the real thing, and they made it with the help of a 3D printer. The new ear improves upon prosthetic ears made by current methods which are not only unlifelike, but often uncomfortable to wear and even painful. Better yet, at most the ear takes only a week to make.
The ear wasn’t 3D printed with “living ink” – researchers still have a way to go before tissue even as simple as an ear can be fabricated de novo. For their ear, the researchers and clinicians at Cornell used a 3D printer to make a precise ear mold. Serving as medical models, the ears of two twin sisters were laser scanned and photographed with a high-definition camera to create a digitized 3D image – a process which took just 30 seconds. The image was then used to fabricate a mold with a Stratasys FDM 2000 3D printer. They then injected a gel containing collagen derived from animals into the ear mold and followed that by injecting 250 million cartilage cells. The collagen, a structural protein found normally in cells, acted as a scaffold on which the cartilage cells grew. In just fifteen minutes the ear was ready. They removed it, shaped it further with trimming, then placed it in a cell culture medium for three to five days before implanting it.