Hearing loss can happen for a number of different reasons. One of the most common causes is known as conductive hearing loss, which is when physical structures within the ear itself become damaged. In particular, a large percentage of conductive hearing loss is related to a trio of tiny bones in the inner ear. These bones, each the size of a rice grain, are called the ossicles, and if any of them is damaged or destroyed, then sounds can't be properly transmitted to the brain.
Currently, surgeons are able to correct this problem by implanting metal or ceramic pieces in place of the damaged bones. But a new study shows that it may be possible to use 3-D print customized replacements for damaged ossicle bones.
For the study, the team of researchers removed the middle ossicle bones from three different cadavers. After taking images of these bones, they used a desktop 3-D printer to create replacement struts out of resin. Next they asked four different surgeons to place the 3-D printed bones into the correct cadavers. After some trial and error, all of the surgeons were able to match the right replacement with the right body.
While this study represents an important first step for this area of research, there are some drawbacks. Perhaps most importantly, since the research was done on cadavers, it's unclear if the 3-D replacements are able to properly conduct sound. Additionally, it may be a challenge to find the right kind of material to make the replacement bones from. Not only does the material have to have the correct vibratory characteristics, but it also has to be biocompatible. Also, since surgeons often have to make minute changes to the bones during surgery, it may be difficult to properly adjust the 3-D printed replacements.
Despite these hurdles, there is a need for this type of procedure. Currently, the surgeries that use metal or ceramic pieces are only around 55% to 75% effective. So if the 3-D printed material could perform better, it might lead to meaningful changes for hearing loss sufferers. Plus, the down-the-road implications could be huge. Theoretically, it might be possible to implant the 3-D printed piece along with new stem cells, which could become bone cells, allowing the ear to make its own permanent prosthesis.
Unfortunately, there is still a wide gap between what's theoretically possible and practically achievable. For now, however, scientists are excited about following this line of research and seeing how useful 3-D printed material could be in correcting conductive hearing loss.
If you or someone you know would like more information about hearing loss and how to treat it, please feel free to schedule a consultation or contact one of our representatives today!