Team in China grows ears and attaches them to human patients

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Post-implantation follow-ups. The pre-operated microtic ear showing a peanut-like structure. At two and a half years post-implantation, the reconstructed ear shows typical auricular features with helix, anti-helix, and cavum conchae, largely symmetrical to the healthy side. Post-implantation assessment at different time points shows the signs of gradual shape recovery, where only blunt ear structures are observed at the 1st and the 6th months post-implantation. Relatively clear ear features with helix, anti-helix, and cavum conchae structures gradually appeared at 9, 12, 24, and 30 months post-implantation. MRI examination reveals an obvious sandwich structure of the ear framework with cartilage (low signal, yellow arrows) surrounding the PCL core region (red arrows). PCL core region signals are difficult to distinguish from other tissue signals at early stage (Post-OP 1 m; a result of tissue edema) and present a gradual decreased trend with increased implantation time (Post-OP 6–24 m). Pre-OP: pre-operation; Post-OP: post-operation. Credit: EBioMedicine (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2018.01.011

A team of researchers in China has, for the first time, created new ears for human patients by growing cartilage and implanting it. In their paper published on the open access site EBioMedicine, the group outlines how the ears were made, how they were attached and how well the ears are developing in the young patients.

All of the patients in the study were children (above age six, the point where ears stop growing) with a condition called microtia, in which one ear fails to develop normally or at all.

Each volunteered for the study, which involved removing cartilage samples (chondrocytes) from the underdeveloped ear and then waiting three months for new ear cartilage to grow sufficiently for implantation.

Cells taken from the cartilage were used to seed a scaffold built using a PCL mesh as an inner base, which was then wrapped with PGA fibers and then covered with PLA—all of which are biodegradable.

The scaffold was housed inside a mold made using a 3-D model of each child’s healthy ear.

The mold allowed the cells on the scaffold to grow into the shape of normal ear cartilage.

After three months, the children had excess ear material surgically removed or altered—once fully prepared, the scaffold with its load of cells was implanted into the prepped ear, which was then covered with skin grafts.

After that, the cartilage was allowed to mature on its own inside the child’s ear over time.

The researchers monitored each of the children for months, or even a couple of years, to see how the ears matured and to deal with any problems that arose.

They report that for three of the five patients, the ears remained normally shaped—the other two had some slight shape abnormalities.

The researchers report that they will continue to monitor the patients for at least five more years, looking specifically for abnormal growth that could indicate tumors—implanted cultured cells have sometimes become cancerous in animal studies.

Another concern is that the ears will become malformed over time because the cartilage is based on chondrocytes taken from the unhealthy ear.

More information: Guangdong Zhou et al. In Vitro Regeneration of Patient-specific Ear-shaped Cartilage and Its First Clinical Application for Auricular Reconstruction, EBioMedicine (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2018.01.011

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