Using a combination of 3-D printing and cultured cells, scientists in China have grown new ears for five children born with a defect in one ear called microtia, which impacts the shape and function of the ear.

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers describe how they collected cartilage cells called chondrocytes from the children’s microtia ears and used them to grow new ear-shaped cartilage. The new cartilage was based on 3-D-printed models of the children’s healthy ears.

Then, the researchers transferred the newly engineered ears to the children and performed ear reconstruction, according to a study published this month in the journal EBioMedicine.

“We were able to successfully design, fabricate, and regenerate patient-specific external ears,” the researchers wrote in their study, which followed each child for up to 2½ years.

“Nevertheless, further efforts remain necessary to eventually translate this prototype work into routine clinical practices,” they wrote. “In the future, long-term (up to 5 years) follow-up of the cartilage properties and clinical outcomes … will be essential.”

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