The Revolutionary New Treatment for Microtia

Microtia is a congenital deformity that most people don’t know about, but it impacts thousands of children every year who are born with the condition. Though the idea for genetically engineered ears has existed for many years, a combination of political and bureaucratic obstacles have prevented them from being available in the United States for the last 20 years. Now, regenerative medicine researchers in the United States and United Kingdom are trying to change that using 3-D printing technology and stem cells.

The Basic Facts of Microtia

Microtia is a birth defect that causes small, malformed, or altogether absent external ears on one side of the face. It’s a condition that usually causes hearing problems in children. While it’s uncommon, impacting about 8,000 to 10,000 children in the United States annually, it’s still a congenital issue that scientists want to solve. Since the cause is unknown, and the incidence is relatively rare, most microtia is not discovered in prenatal ultrasounds. Currently, the only true treatment for microtia is to take cartilage from another part of the body, like the rib, and the carve it into the shape of the ear, place it under the skin, and graft more skin on top. It’s a decent option, but is still risky and fails to create the true feeling of an ear that is part of the body.

A New Technique to Grow Human Ears

Just like stem cells have revolutionized potential treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease, arthritis, and much more, doctors at the University of California at Los Angeles and University of Edinburgh are working to use stem cells to create fully formed human ears. The process uses a 3-D printed polymer mold obtained by scanning and printing a model of the patient’s normal ear. In the very rare case that a patient has both ears impacted by microtia, a sample is taken from a family member’s ear instead.

That ear-shaped polymer is then implanted with stem cells drawn from fat, since the process is barely invasive and fat cells are plentiful in the body. As the stem cells differentiate into cartilage cells, the polymer scaffold simply disintegrates and leaves a full ear in its place. Since the ear is made of mature cartilage cells, it has the potential to “change all aspects of surgical care,” according to one of the researchers, Dr. Ken Stewart.

Beyond Ears

The technology accomplished to create human ears from stem cells can extend far beyond ears, as Stewart pointed out in his research. It’s possible to use this technology to create other body parts made of cartilage, like knee joints and noses, and can even help patients who need more fat to repair injuries or other birth deformities. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of experts like Dr. Stewart, art and science has an opportunity to come together to cure the previously incurable.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Mira Swave, MD

Contributor at Regenerative Medicine Now

Mira Swave, M.D. is a specialist in the field of Regenerative Medicine.
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