Five children have been grown a new ear made from their own cells in a world first trial.
Chinese researchers conducted the groundbreaking experiment on children with microtia – when the ear is underdeveloped.
The young patients’ own ear cartilage cells, obtained from their other ear, were then used to form a new one in the landmark trial.
Striking pictures reveal how the ‘very exciting’ technique has worked, helping the children to have newly-shaped ears.
Microtia, which strikes between one in 6,000 and 12,000 births, can often cause hearing difficulties.
Conventional treatments for the condition revolve around synthetic ears or using cartilage taken from the child’s ribs.
The new treatment, pioneered by Guangdong Zhou at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, offers hope of an easier method, New Scientist reports.
It involves taking a CT scan of the patient’s healthy ear to then create a 3D-printed replica, which is mirrored to represent their affected ear.
A mould is then made, which is littered with tiny holes, and filled with materials that degrade within the body.
A small sample of cells that make ear cartilage are then taken from the patient’s underdeveloped ear and used to fill the holes.
Over the space of 12 weeks, the cells begin to grow in the shape of the mould and the other materials in the mould begin to degrade.
The treatment also involves placing a ’tissue expander’ underneath the skin of the affected ear. This helps stretch the skin.
By the time the process is nearing the end, this has created a flap of skin that the newly created ear structure is implanted into.
However, it is unclear how long it will take for the entire treatment to finish, and the researchers will monitor each of the five patients for five years.
The first patient in the study underwent the experiment two and a half years ago, and it has been a success for her.
Researchers said similar results have been recorded for the other four, but some of the new ears have slightly distorted.
The findings, published in the journal EBioMedicine, have been welcomed by experts across the world, with some referring to it as ‘quite an achievement’.
Dr Tessa Hadlock, from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, described it as a ‘very exciting approach’.
Speaking to New Scientist, she said: ‘They’ve shown that it is possible to get close to restoring the ear structure.’
But the new technique needs to create better-looking ears than those that are made using conventional treatments before it is approved in clinics – which it has yet to do.
The process is similar to that used in an experiment in the 1990s at Massachussetts General Hospital to create the ‘Vacanti mouse’.
The mouse had a human ear growing on its back, which sparked furore among animal rights campaigners and religious groups.