|(Photo : Frank Wojciechowski)|
The work, which is published in the journal Nano Letters, is the latest example of the use of 3D printing to create complex objects. In this case the researchers’ goal was to merge tissue engineering with electronics to create an ear with a built-in coil antenna.
In an article in the UK publication, The Engineer, the work is described this way:
“The researchers used an ordinary 3D printer to combine a matrix of hydrogel and calf cells with silver nanoparticles that form an antenna. The calf cells later develop into cartilage.
The finished ear consists of a coiled antenna inside a cartilage structure. Two wires lead from the base of the ear and wind around a helical ‘cochlea’ – the part of the ear that senses sound – which can connect to electrodes.In essence they built a bionic ear.
Or did they? While the work is undoubtedly clever and the ear is certainly rather cool to see, the bigger question is does the ear work and if it does what will it do and who will it help? Right now the researchers say the antenna could be connected to electrodes and, at least theoretically, somehow connect to an acoustic nerve in an individual to help improve hearing.
It’s a lovely idea. It’s also a huge leap to say that because we have “created” an ear we can use it to improve hearing. There’s a long way to go and a lot of work that has to be done to get from the concept to the reality of hooking this ear up to the complex wiring of our inner that transmits sound signals to the brain.
3D printing is clearly going to have an impact on our lives. It's too soon to saw whether this device will be one of them.
There's more information about stem cell research into hearing loss on our deafness fact sheet.