Researchers have transplanted a 3D-printed human ear—made by the regenerative medicine company 3DBio Therapeutics—for the first time. The basic process involves a biopsy to harvest cartilage cells from the patient. The cells are then cultured, which means they essentially multiply until there’s enough material. They go into what 3DBio calls a bio-ink. A 3D-bioprinter uses that to form the ear. The outer ear is made of the patient’s own cells, making it less likely to be rejected by the body. It’s part of a clinical trial that forms cartilage cells into a shape and size that matches the patient’s other ear. This stunning achievement could lead to other 3D-printed tissues, and even organs.
Details about the technology are scarce in order to maintain the company’s trademark. Once the clinical trial is complete, the company will likely share more details in a medical journal. (We learned about the clinical trial from The Verge.) The trial consists of 11 people, ages 6-25, that have microtia, which leads to underdeveloped or missing outer ears. The company aims for a future goal of 3D-printing other human tissue like noses and rotator cuffs. And eventually transplantable organs like livers and kidneys, again made from the patient’s own cells.
Other regenerative medicine companies are also making progress in this field, including one that aims to mass produce organs via 3D printing. Astronauts on the International Space Station recently tested bandages made of bioprinted human skin. Outside of the medical field, companies are also researching culinary applications. Multiple groups 3D print cruelty-free meat, including chicken and even Wagyu beef from stem cells.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.