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Jul 11, 2013 09:49 AM EDT

Princeton Researchers Create ‘Biopic Ear’; Future Versions Could Help Restore Hearing in Deaf

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Princeton University researchers have created a bionic ear that can both transmit and receive sound. The synthetic ear, created in a lab using state-of-the-art technology, 3-D bio printer, a Petri dish and some cartilage cells from a cow, could help restore hearing in people who lost their ear in an accident, by cancer or are born with an ear deformity.

"This is something we hope in the next 2 or 3 years we'll actually have in trials in children," said Dr. Jason Spector with Weill Cornell Medical College.

The scientists first passed bovine cells mixed in a liquid gel through the printer and then put nanoparticles of silver. The printer then shaped the material into a 'bionic ear,' and the silver particles into a built-in antenna that is capable of detecting radio signals that a normal ear can't.

Once this soft and transparent 3-D ear was printed, it was kept aside for 10 weeks, to allow cells to grow a flesh color and hardened tissue around the antenna.

While this living biological material is not processed for human functioning, it is a successful example of cybernetics, a concept that combines biology and technology.

"What we really did here was actually more of a proof of concept of the capabilities of 3-D printing," said Michael McAlpine, the professor who led the project. "Because most people use 3-D printing to print passive objects - things like figurines and jewelry."

This coiled antenna functions similar to any other antenna by picking up radio signals that the ear could interpret as sound.

Medgadget said:

" when researchers played 'Fur Elise' to a pair of fully formed ears, the silver particles detected the radio signals and sent them to electrodes in the back of the ear, which then transmitted the signal along wires to a set of speakers which played Beethoven's masterpiece clearly without interference."

McAlpine said that the bio-engineered ear replacement could be used for actual human functions, and as a digital sixth sense.

"As the world becomes a more digital and electronic place, I think ultimately we're going to care less about our traditional five senses," he said. "And we're going to want these new senses to give us direct electronic communication with our cellphones and our laptop devices."

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