The Ears Have It: Bio-Printing Applications For The Future

Creating viable human organs and tissue by printing them sounds like so much science fiction, but in fact, scientists are making breakthroughs that could potentially revolutionize medical practice and make transplants and artificial organ replacements a thing of the past. While the technology is still far from being used as a common practice, scientists are hopeful that as the 3D printing technology continues to advance, so too will the potential applications in medicine.

Three-dimensional printing already has several approved and effective medical applications. Plastics, metals, ceramics and other artificial materials have been used to graft bones, make hearing aids and/or develop prosthetic devices that are unique to each patient; however, printing soft tissue replacements has posed more of a challenge. To create a hard structure, like bone, the replacement material is simply layered incrementally into the desired shape; soft tissue, however, does not have enough inherent structure itself to keep its shape during the printing process. 

Additionally, instead of using an artificial material, creating a soft tissue replacement requires using living cells as the printing material. The use of living tissue as the ink in the printing process, which is called bio-printing, has not posed a huge challenge though. Scientists have already overcome that hurdle and have been able to print many different types of cells that fuse together to function effectively, like a prosthetic ear. However, cells need blood to survive and the technology for creating a blood pathway through the created organs has presented some difficulties. 

In order to overcome these obstacles, scientists and researchers turned to Jello. Well, really a similar gel-like substance that can be used to form a scaffold for the living tissue to adhere to until it fuses together into the desired organ.  The gel can also be used to create a channel in the organ for blood to flow through. Once the gel is brought to body temperature, it melts and can be siphoned away, or is absorbed by the surrounding cells, leaving a clear passageway. This same type of gel can also be made into molds that support the tissues as they are being printed so that they do not collapse onto themselves. 

Although printing a fully-functioning, complex set of tissues, like an eardrum, is still far in the future, doctors have been able to print viable human bladders since 1999 and transplant them into patients successfully. This is possible because bladders are composed of only two types of cells. Ear drums have a variety of types of cells and must interface with both bone and nerves in order to function effectively. Doctors hope to overcome these issues to develop a replacement ear drum that may restore hearing permanently.

In the meantime, there are some workable, and rather miraculous, applications for bio-printing right now: burn patients can have new skin, printed from their own cells, grafted onto the burn areas with great precision, increasing their chances of survival; similarly created layers of tissues can be used to patch damaged organs, like the heart, and printed organs can also be used outside the body to study the effects of diseases like cancer safely and without harming patients. 

Three-dimensional printing is showing great promise for the future of medicine and for all the patients who need may new replacement parts. The possible applications are potentially limitless. 

While it may be some time before 3D printed ear drums are ready for the treatment of deaf patients, contact a local ENT clinic, such as Otolaryngology Plastic Surgery Associates PC, for information about the best way to approach your specific hearing problems.