History is about to be made at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, where researchers are working on the world’s first functional and implantable 3D printed ear. What’s more, they already have a first patient in mind: the two-year-old Maia Van Mulligan, who was born with Microtia and only has one functional ear. Though Project Maia initially only focusses on this one patient, the goal is to develop a standard 3D printing procedure for implantable ears within the next two to three years.
Maia’s case is quite unfortunate. While many people with malformed ears can still hear to some extent, this isn’t the case with the Microtia (or ‘little ear’) condition. “The condition means there is no left ear and there is no ear canal, so what that means is that it’s a conductive hearing loss,” Maia’s mother told7news. The girl currently wears a headband that transmits sound to her brain, using her skull as a bone conductor. While Maia probably doesn’t know that she’s missing an ear yet, it won’t be long before she will begin to feel very different from the kids around her.
This promising research project is part of the local government’s Advance Queensland initiative, and has already successfully gathered funds for developing its custom cartilage tissue implants. According to QUT Associate Professor and team leader Mia Woodruff, $125,000 AUD has been raised by the state government and by various private funders already. This should go a long way, she says, towards making anatomically correct ears using a patient’s own cartilage cells. The team has already hired PhD researcher Maureen Ross to work on the project, and is looking to raise a further $50,000 AUD through crowdfunding later this year.
The project itself consists of two main stages, with the first being the easiest: a short-term cosmetic solution. This can be realized with a 3D printed ear made from medical-grade silicone, which is attached magnetically or with glue. In the near future, that step could be realized in just a matter of hours and would be perfect for patients with malformed or damaged ears.
But the long-term stage is far more ambitious and revolves around a complex bioengineering solution. The goal, in a nutshell, is to develop a procedure for growing a 3D ear from a patient’s own cells using a special bioreactor. After a few weeks of growing, that “living, breathing ear construct” could then be surgically implanted. Finally, hearing could be realized with a custom bionic construction, for which the researchers will collaborate with bionics specialists. If successful, the whole procedure could cost as little as two hundred dollars per child. This long-term project is scheduled to take two to three years.
According to professor Woodruff, both steps are revolutionary. “Nobody’s ever 3D-printed ear prosthetics before in the world,” she told ABC, adding that 3D scanning data opened up a wide range of possibilities. “We can feed that information into a custom-built 3D printer and we can print that ear on the spot. I think the ability to 3D print an ear prosthetic will cost the public less than a pair of glasses,” she says.
The project also involves the Australian charity Hear and Say, which helps children suffering from hearing loss and ear malformations. “It will be a world first, absolutely unheard of,” the charity’s executive director Dimity Dornan said. “Up until now, nobody’s been able to crack the cosmetic effect which is so important to parents.” Leeanne Enoch, the state government’s Innovation and Science Minister, further argued that this innovation will pave the way for a lot more research. “This particular research opens the door to incredible research in the medical field right across the world,” she said.
Though the project is still in its infancy, Maia’s mother Chloe Mulligan is already convinced this will dramatically change the life of her daughter. “I thought it was light years away in terms of this technology. It’s not just about the hearing loss, it is about being socially accepted in society,” the toddler’s mother said. “For us the day she comes to us and actually says, ‘Where’s my ear’, it’s obviously going to be heartbreaking. But now we can say, ‘You will have an ear’.”