While still not entirely commonplace, 3D-printed body parts made of actual, living tissue have started popping up at a wonderfully alarming rate. The most recent iteration, though, takes the concept one whole cyborg-tinged step further. Researchers at Princeton successfully created a prototype, artificial ear that rolls 3D-printed cells in with an antenna for one terrifyingly awesome hearing aid.
Using a hydrogel gel embedded with printed calf cells as a base (which allowed researchers to duplicate the structure of an ear more accurately than with other methods, e.g. cartilage grafts and tissue cultures), Michael McAlpine, an assistant engineering professor at Princeton, added layers of silver nanoparticles to form a coiled antenna that somewhat mimics the ear's natural structure. The cell-loaded base could then grow into cartilage around its embedded antenna, which would then connect to a cochlea-simulator and allow actual interpretation of sounds.
The ultimate goal is for the bionic ear to be able to attach to human nerve endings, aiding or even totally replacing our antiquated ol' organic ears. But McAlpine doesn't want to stop there—he's hoping to make major advancements in the field of seamlessly integrated, bionic organs as a whole.
And while you probably won't see these sorts of otological electronics slapped on the side of someone's head any time soon, the implications of McAlpine's success are incredible to consider. Humans could even one day control their ears with a smartphone, turning up and down volume as need be. So be careful what you say—you never know who (or what) could be listening. [Princeton University via The Verge]