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Doctor uses 3D printing to create hyper-accurate ear implants for kids

A doctor in the United Kingdom is using cutting-edge 3D scanning technology to design hyper-accurate ear implants for children suffering from microtia, a congenital condition in which the external ear can be so small it’s practically invisible.

Rather than subjecting children to a general anesthetic or the scary experience of undergoing an MRI scan to build his 3D ear model data, Dr. Ken Stewart of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, Scotland, uses an Artec Spider 3D scanner to capture the geometry of the patient’s other, healthy ear, and then mirrors this to create a model for the ear implant.

“Most patients are born with one ear missing or a loose part of one ear,” Stewart tells Digital Trends. “Traditionally we would use a clear acetate to take a 2D tracing of the normal ear. This would be used as a template to help carve an appropriately sized and shaped opposite ear. The 3D scanner and mirror image software allows us to produce a more accurate template.”

As Stewart notes, prior to such 3D scanning technology being available, surgeons would craft replacement ears out of extracted rib cartilage, based only on approximations of how the finished product should look. Although results were acceptable, they were far from precise in terms of capturing the exact dimensions of the body part.

Once Stewart’s 3D models are completed, on the other hand, he then uses a 3D printer to create a replica of the ear that needs to be carved. After they’ve been sterilized, these 3D-printed models are then taken into the operating room where they act as far more accurate models for the surgeon.

Right now, the models are only replicas crafted out of plastic. However, as bio-printing continues to advance, Stewart says they may not stay that way for long.

“We are working with scientists at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Chemistry Department with a view to tissue engineering an ear,” he explains.

Professor Bruno Peault and his team have characterized stem cells within human fat which lie next to blood vessels. We can harvest these very easily by liposuction. For a plastic surgeon that is easier than taking blood. With Professor Mark Bradley’s team in the chemistry department we have identified FDA approved polymers to which the stem cells will bind and can be driven to produce cartilage. We know we can 3D print in the polymers concerned. So the Artec-derived 3D scans could potentially be mirrored [and] 3D printed with the ideal polymer.”

It’s yet another piece of evidence that 3D printing is changing medicine as we know it.