Sep 19, 2016 | By Alec

Remember Project Maia? Launched back in April, this heartwarming Australian project by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology and the Hear and Say charity started working on a fully functional 3D printed ear implant for the 2-year-old Maia – who will be the first Microtia patient in the world to receive such an implant. The same people behind Project Maia are now upping the ante with the FutureHear platform – which seeks to bring the same 3D bioprinting solution to Microtia patients everywhere. To realize this, they are hoping to raise $200,000 AUD (about $150,000) through a Pozible crowdfunding campaign.

This is a solution that is more necessary than you might think, as Microtia (or ‘little ear’) is a seriously debilitating ear deformity that leaves people completely deaf in one or both ears. “Imagine you are born without an ear, or with an underdeveloped ear (termed Microtia). Imagine the phychosocial implications, potential bullying, the associated hearing issues. Imagine being a parent wanting their child to have a completely normal life, the uncertainty, the search for a solution,” the FutureHear initiators say. Affecting about one in every 6,000 births around the world, it leaves most patients without a functional earth canal.

While some patients currently wear headbands that transmit sounds to their brain (using the skull as a conductor), it’s a poor substitute for the real thing – which is actually in reach. FutureHear is seeking to provide life-like, removable 3D printed ears to children born without them. Through the 3D scanning of the other ear, these children can be given an affordable prosthesis that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. In time, even fully-functional prostheses are a realistic possibility.

Of course traditional prosthetics offer some opportunities as well, but these are very labor-intensive and expensive to manufacture. They also need to be regularly replaced, due to wear and solar damage. Many families simply cannot deal with those extra expenses.

Children from all over the world can benefit from this FutureHear concept. The four-and-a-half year old Ole Walton from Brisbane, for instance, is in need of two implants for his two underdeveloped ears. “We don't know what the future, exactly, will bring but we're really impatient and quite excited by the prospect of everything that's going on now,” his mother said after hearing of the project during Hear and Say Centre's annual Microtia workshop. In this specific case, ear prosthetics could be modeled after the ears of Ole’s parents. “There'll be the debate of who's ears will he have. It will be very exciting, but every ear is different so it would be nice for him to have his own unique ones,” she added.

This fantastic initiative can be traced back to 2015, when Dr Dimity Dornan (founder of Hear and Say) met with biofabrication specialist Dr. Mia Woodruff. The latter was giving a presentation on the medical possibilities of 3D printing at QUT, and audience member Dornan simply asked her if the same 3D printed patient-specific implant options were available for ears as well. “Yes, but we’ve never really focussed on that........ why?” Woodruff replied, and things grew from there. Hear and Say, which already helped children through personalized listening and speech therapy, was more than willing to accommodate 3D printing as well.

As Dornan explained, 3D printing can enable a huge leap forward in the treatment of deformed ears. “It is absolutely a world first, when we can get to the stage where we're biofabricating the child's ear with the child's own skin and cartilage cells,” Dornan said. “When that stage is reached, it is absolutely a world-first but what we are doing is, firstly, generating the next-generation prosthetic ear, which will be far better than anything else around. It's exactly the same as the ear they have on the other side, usually, and it will be completely matched using computer scanning and an app in an iPhone.”

FutureHear was thus born, but quickly ran into financial difficulties. The Australian government simply failed to provide them with adequate funding. “We have the people, we have the resources, we just don't have the research funds to enable us to do that project,” Woodruff said, adding that Australia can easily become a world-leader in the field of 3D printed ear structures. Undeterred, the project has now turned to crowdfunding, as they’ve seen more than enough social support already. “The public understands that they can be part of this journey, that they can help contribute, even if it's just in a tiny, tiny way,” she said.

But crowdfunding also necessitates a clear schedule and targets, and FutureHear has therefore started focusing on three realistic goals. Firstly, to create child-specific prosthetics that are cheaper than a pair of glasses. Secondly, to 3D print tissue-engineered ears that are functional and permanently implanted. Thirdly, to address hearing functionality through 3D printed embedded electronics. The first prosthetic ears can be ready by late 2017.

The real revolution would be in the biofabricated ears of the second and third goals. “These are ears we're also 3D printing, but we're using biocompatible sterile materials and we are culturing those in a bioreactor in a laboratory with cells taken from a patient and we are creating a living ear that will be implanted by a surgeon,” Woodruff said. “The prosthetic could be achieved by the end of next year and, if the funds come in for that project, it will enable and catapult the tissue-engineered ear to be able to be hopefully realized within a five-year timeframe.”

To build a foundation for these ambitious plans, FutureHear is now seeking to raise $200,000 in 45 days through a Pozible crowdfunding campaign. Though backers are not rewarded the usual perks known from Kickstarter, they can help to make a real difference in children’s lives. The funds will largely go towards research equipment and to support positions for scientists and researchers.

 

 

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