Listen up! Stem cell scientists craft new ears using children’s own cells

Imagine growing up without an ear, or with one that was stunted and deformed. It would likely have an impact on almost every part of your life, not just your hearing. But now scientists in China say they have found a way to help give children born with this condition a new ear, one that is grown using their own cells.

Microtia is a rare condition where children are born with a deformed or underdeveloped outer ear. This is what it can look like.

Microtia ear

In an interview in New Scientist, Dr. Tessa Hadlock, at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, said:

“Children with the condition often feel self-conscious and are picked on, and are unable to wear glasses.”

In the past repairing it required several cosmetic surgeries that had to be repeated as the child grew. But now Chinese scientists say they have helped five children born with microtia grown their own ears.

In the study, published in the journal EBioMedicine, the researchers explained how they used a CT scan of the child’s normal ear to create a 3D mold, using biodegradable material. They took cartilage cells from the child’s ear, grew them in the lab, and then used them to fill in tiny holes in the ear mold. Over the course of 12 weeks the cells continued to multiply and grow and slowly replaced the biodegradable material in the mold.

While the new “ear” was being prepared in the lab, the scientists used a mechanical device to slowly expand the skin on the child’s affected ear. After 12 weeks there was enough expanded skin for the scientists to take the engineered ear, surgically implant it on the child’s head, and cover it with skin.

Over the course of the next two and a half years the engineered ear took on a more and more “natural” appearance. The children did undergo minor surgeries, to remove scar tissue, but other than that the engineered ear shows no signs of complications or of being rejected.

Here is a photo montage showing the pre and post-surgical pictures of a six-year old girl, the first person treated in the study.

Microtia

Other scientists, in the US and UK, are already working on using stem cells taken from the patient’s fat tissue, that are then re-engineered to become ear cells.

Surgeons, like Dr. Hadlock, say this study proves the concept is sound and can make a dramatic difference in the lives of children.

“It’s a very exciting approach. They’ve shown that it is possible to get close to restoring the ear structure.”

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