If there is a single piece of technology that has dramatically shortened the gap towards that TV utopia tomorrow, where you can walk up to a random wall panel and shout your preferred hot beverage at it, Star Trek style, it would be the 3D printer.
These things are like something Nikola Tesla would have dreamed up after eating too much sugar as a six-year-old. If you don’t believe us then how about that time archaeologists in Britain printed the skull of Richard III? Or when someone decided that the world needed more printed bikinis? Or how about The Sugar Lab – a company that prints cakes, presumably because they’ve never heard of, you know, ovens.
So when the Smithsonian Mag confirmed just how mindblowing this tech really is when they reported on a project currently underway, which aims to use 3D printing in the production of new human ears.
But, of course, it’s always important to discover the hows and why these kinds of stories, so allow us to fill you in.
The centre of the issue here is the difficulty present in treating damaged ears, compared to the relative ease with which ears can be damaged, what with them poking out from the side of your head and all. You’ve probably seen pictures of the first artificially grown ear, the Vacanti Mouse became a calling point for people railing against genetic engineering, despite the process not actually involving any genetic engineering.
While the earmouse project drew a whole lot of bad press, there are still plenty of people who would be quite happy for the use of a spare ear. Fast forward 20 years then, and here we are, as per Smithonian Mag:
Inspired by the earmouse, doctors at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine have perfected a new technique to grow a fully formed human ear, using patients’ own stem cells. They begin with a 3D-printed polymer mold of an ear, which is then implanted with stem cells drawn from fat. As these stem cells differentiate into cartilage, the polymer scaffold degrades, leaving a full “ear” made of mature cartilage cells.
The main focus for the research are sufferers of microtia, a birth defect that causes the ear to under-develop and can leave the children with a small ear, or simply an unformed piece of cartilage on the side of their head.
The new technique uses either images of the patient’s unaffected ear, or that of a relative, to create a correctly proportioned synthetic mould, with emphasis placed on the natural look and feel of the treatment.
With proposed applications for the technique also stretching to other cartilage body parts – such as hip and knees joints, and noses – the treatment is set to provide hope and comfort to people with a range of problems all over the world.
We’ll say it again, 3D printers rule!