3D printed artificial ear made from cartilage with an antenna

The world of science evolves day by day as a strange combination of tissue and electronics could help the human race repair or someday even replace our ears. Michael McAlpine, an assistant engineering professor at Princeton and his team of researchers, have made a prototype artificial ear from an antenna and 3D printed cells. McAlpine has worked for years on making electronics that could be integrated with the human body: in 2011, his team built a graphene tattoo that could be stuck on a tooth to detect bacteria. In this project, though, he wanted something more: an organ with electronics embedded inside it.

In order to create the ear, McAlpine started with a 3D printer. While it’s possible to reconstruct an ear with cartilage transplants or cultured tissue, printing it allowed researchers to closely copy the shape of an ear while incorporating in an antenna. The team used a hydrogel seeded with calf cells for the structure, adding layers of silver nanoparticles that formed a coil antenna. Those cells could then turn into cartilage, as seen above. The end of the antenna connects to a system meant to simulate the cochlea, which lets us sense sounds.

Cultured cells share space with silver nanoparticles

During testing, the artificial ear could pick up radio waves, and a “complementary” left and right pair could listen in stereo. McAlpine says that it could theoretically be attached to human nerve endings, like some hearing aids, but doing so would require extensive testing. His research on the subject has been accepted for publication in Nano Letters.

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