Scientists at Princeton University used off-the-shelf printing tools to create a functional ear that can 'hear' radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability.
Creating organs using 3D printers is a recent advance; several groups have reported using the technology for this purpose in the past few months. But this is the first time that researchers have demonstrated that 3D printing is a convenient strategy to interweave tissue with electronics.
The technique allowed the researchers to combine the antenna electronics with tissue within the highly complex topology of a human ear. The researchers used an ordinary 3D printer to combine a matrix of hydrogel and calf cells with silver nanoparticles that form an antenna. The calf cells later develop into cartilage.
Manu Mannoor, a graduate student in McAlpine's lab and the paper's lead author, said that additive manufacturing opens new ways to think about the integration of electronics with biological tissue and makes possible the creation of true bionic organs in form and function. He said that it may be possible to integrate sensors into a variety of biological tissues, for example, to monitor stress on a patient's knee meniscus.
David Gracias, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and co-author on the publication, said that bridging the divide between biology and electronics represents a formidable challenge that needs to be overcome to enable the creation of smart prostheses and implants.
"Biological structures are soft and squishy, composed mostly of water and organic molecules, while conventional electronic devices are hard and dry, composed mainly of metals, semiconductors and inorganic dielectrics," he said. "The differences in physical and chemical properties between these two material classes could not be any more pronounced."
The finished ear consists of a coiled antenna inside a cartilage structure. Two wires lead from the base of the ear and wind around a helical "cochlea" – the part of the ear that senses sound – which can connect to electrodes. Although McAlpine cautions that further work and extensive testing would need to be done before the technology could be used on a patient, he said the ear in principle could be used to restore or enhance human hearing. He said electrical signals produced by the ear could be connected to a patient's nerve endings, similar to a hearing aid. The current system receives radio waves, but he said the research team plans to incorporate other materials, such as pressure-sensitive electronic sensors, to enable the ear to register acoustic sounds.
In addition to McAlpine, Verma, Mannoor and Gracias the research team includes: Winston Soboyejo, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton; Karen Malatesta, a faculty fellow in molecular biology at Princeton; Yong Lin Kong, a graduate student in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton; and Teena James, a graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins.