Lab Rat with Human Ear for Wounded Veterans

Ears, Skin, Bone Grown in Science Labs for Injured Veterans

The demand for plastic surgery and facial reconstruction is definitely on the rise as injured veterans have been returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Up to a thousand troops might need an ear, for instance, but it’s commonly known that prosthetic ears do not look or feel natural, however, and scientists have been working on growing ears for more than 20 years. Cathryn Sundback, the director of the tissue-engineering lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, thinks that her team may have found the solution.

Sundback’s lab uses a computer model of the patient’s remaining ear to create a titanium framework that is covered in collagen, the naturally occurring protein that makes skin have elasticity and strength. Next, they take a snip of cartilage from inside the nose or between the ribs and use these cells to seed the model. The ear is then incubated for two weeks in the lab, where it grows more cartilage. Before the ear is implanted, a skin graft is taken to cover the cartilage, and then the ear is stitched into place.

Bioengineered Ears for Wounded Veterans

The team has also grown anatomically correct human ears from cells and implanted these on the backs of lab rats to keep them nourished. Lab-grown ears have been maintained on sheep for 20 weeks, which shows that the implants can be done successfully and are long-term.

They hope that they will receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to start implanting the ears into patients in the next year.

Research projects that focus on growing body parts are becoming more prevalent, thanks to the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), a facility the U.S. government created four years ago to provide the bioengineering research needed to meet the demands of injured troops. Over $300 million in grants was given to spur new treatments using cell science and advanced plastic surgery.

Human Earn Grown on Lab Rat as Bioengineered Prosthetic Implant

“We’ve solved all the technical problems,” Sundback said. “It’s amazing how much progress we’ve made with the AFIRM funding.”

In addition to the scientists growing ears for injured veterans in Boston, the AFIRM grants have helped fund:

  • Surgeons in Los Angeles who have used part of a soldier’s forehead to rebuild his nose after a bomb disfigured him in Iraq;
  • Doctors in Pittsburgh who created an experimental therapy that used pig tissue to regrow part of a thigh muscle a soldier lost in Afghanistan;
  • Doctors in San Antonio are testing sprayed-on skin cells and lab-made sheets of skin to heal burns and other wounds commonly seen on injured soldiers.

“The whole idea is to bring all these researchers together to develop these great technologies that were in early science to eventually be ready for the troops,” said AFIRM’s recently retired director, Terry Irgens.

Bioengineered Ear Cartilage Replacement for Veterans

We still have a long way to go in helping veterans regain a sense of normalcy after injury, and many still remain disfigured after reconstructive surgeries.

Bioengineering and regenerative medicine are making great strides, however, ever since the AFIRM network was established, which includes top hospitals and universities, and the infusion of $300 million in grants has breathed new life into cell science and advanced plastic surgery treatments that had been languishing in underfunded labs for too long.

Do you know a wounded warrior who has benefited from AFIRM’s bioengineering funds?