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.
The researchers’ primary purpose was to explore an efficient and versatile means to merge electronics with tissue. The scientists used 3D printing of cells and nanoparticles followed by cell culture to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage, creating what they term a bionic ear.
“In general, there are mechanical and thermal challenges with interfacing electronic materials with biological materials,” said Michael McAlpine, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton and the lead researcher. “Previously, researchers have suggested some strategies to tailor the electronics so that this merger is less awkward. That typically happens between a 2D sheet of electronics and a surface of the tissue. However, our work suggests a new approach—to build and grow the biology up with the electronics synergistically and in a 3D interwoven format.”
McAlpine’s team has made several advances in recent years involving the use of small-scale medical sensors and antenna. Last year, a research effort led by McAlpine and Naveen Verma, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, and Fio Omenetto of Tufts University, resulted in the development of a “tattoo” made up of a biological sensor and antenna that can be affixed to the surface of a tooth.
This project, however, is the team’s first effort to create a fully functional organ: one that not only replicates a human ability, but extends it using embedded electronics:
“The design and implementation of bionic organs and devices that enhance human capabilities, known as cybernetics, has been an area of increasing scientific interest,” the researchers wrote in the article which appears in the scholarly journal Nano Letters. “This field has the potential to generate customized replacement parts for the human body, or even create organs containing capabilities beyond what human biology ordinarily provides.” …