Scientists use 3D printer to create ‘bionic ear’ that hears better than you

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, May 2, 2013 10:53 EDT
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The world's first "bionic ear." Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.
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Scientists at Princeton University announced Wednesday that they have created a “bionic ear” that has abilities beyond the normal human range of hearing.

Using a 3D printer filled with cells and hydrogel, they fashioned a synthetic ear matched to the dimensions of a human’s ear that merges its biological components with a nano-engineered electronic-conducting polymer. That polymer enables an inductive coil antenna to be implanted and cartilage grown around it, creating what amounts to the world’s first “bionic ear,” researchers explained in the journal Nano Letters.

“The design and implementation of bionic organs and devices that enhance human capabilities, known as cybernetics, has been an area of increasing scientific interest,” they wrote. “This field has the potential to generate customized replacement parts for the human body, or even create organs containing capabilities beyond what human biology ordinarily provides.”

While the ear itself isn’t likely to be showing up on the side of anyone’s head, the technique is a major advance for the growing field of 3D printed organs. Future advances could one day lead to a bionic ear that can be controlled by a smartphone or other wearable device, turning the volume up or down or tuning into radio signals at-will.

“In general, there are mechanical and thermal challenges with interfacing electronic materials with biological materials,” lead researcher Michael McAlpine said in an advisory. “Previously, researchers have suggested some strategies to tailor the electronics so that this merger is less awkward. That typically happens between a 2D sheet of electronics and a surface of the tissue. However, our work suggests a new approach — to build and grow the biology up with the electronics synergistically and in a 3D interwoven format.”

The addition of electronic components to artificially created human organs is likely to be just the beginning of the “bionic” movement, which is still in its infancy but making giant steps every month, aided by new advances in 3D printing.

Scientists at the University of Oxford announced just last month that 3D printers can be used to create a substance similar to human tissues, using lipid bilayers similar to cellular membranes to separate water droplets. They speculated that such tissues could one day be used as graft material to repair injuries, or like a sponge that can trigger the release of medications with a small charge.

Just days before that announcement, a company called Organovo demonstrated a 3D printing method that uses liver cells, wowing an audience gathered for the Experimental Biology 2013 conference in Boston. Organovo’s sister company, Modern Meadow, is aiming to apply the same technology to edible meat and leather.

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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