A groundbreaking total ear reconstruction, which saw a new ear grown on a soldier’s arm to replace one lost in an accident, has been successfully carried out by the US military. Described as the first time such a process has been carried out by the US Army, it involved cultivating a completely new ear from cartilage taken from the soldier’s ribs.
Pvt. Shamika Burrage, a supply clerk with 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, was involved in a car accident in 2016 when her front tire blew out. The vehicle skidded then flipped several times, leaving Burrage with head and spine injuries. More noticeably, however, she had completely lose her left ear.
Although first considering a prosthetic ear, Burrage was then encouraged to consider the unusual reconstruction. The process was led by Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. In addition to cultivating a replacement ear, Johnson also aimed to reopen Burrage’s ear canal, which had closed up as an effect of the injury.
The goal was more than just an aesthetic replacement, mind. Johnson took autologous cartilage – meaning it was sourced from Burrage herself, rather than from a donor – from the ribs, and implanted it into the forearm. That allowed new blood vessels to form, along with new nerves.
The resulting ear “will have fresh arteries fresh veins and even a fresh nerve so she’ll be able to feel it,” Johnson said, the US Army reports. Epidermis from the forearm, meanwhile, has been left attached to the ear. It’s being used to cover up scar tissue around the jawline, also resulting from the crash.
“The whole goal is by the time she’s done with all this, it looks good, it’s sensate, and in five years if somebody doesn’t know her they won’t notice,” Johnson explained. The cultivation and growth process has already taken a year, forming under Burrage’s skin. As part of the surgery, one of several stages Johnson and his team will undertake, the closed ear canal was reopened, and Burrage says she has experienced no hearing loss.
There are two more surgeries left to complete, though the team – and their patient – are reportedly confident that everything is going to plan.
While it may be a first for the US Army, it’s not, of course, the first time we’ve seen replacement body parts grown. Arguably most famous is the so-called Vacanti Mouse, created at the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1997. That saw an ear-shaped cartilage structure created by seeding cells taken from a cow into an appropriate mold, that was then implanted under the mouse’s skin.
Since then, however, new techniques for artificially producing replacement body parts have been experimented with. Back in 2015, for instance, scientists in Zurich used 3D printing to produce a nose from biopolymers and living cartilage cells, doing so in just 16 minutes time. However, the researchers warned that practical applications were still some way off.