© ACS

© ACS

The story

I come across a lot of science news stories (as you can imagine) and  have noticed that journalists are attracted to certain topics – ones that they think have a certain ‘sexy’ appeal to their readers I imagine. Bionic body parts seems to be one of them – conjuring imagery of a future where we are all enhanced by ultra-efficient prosthetic body parts like RoboCop.

One of these stories that hit the press recently was the news that researchers in Princeton have created a ‘bionic’ ear.

Probably the most interesting part of this story is that they used an ordinary 3D printer, the kind that anyone can pick up although I can’t imagine people around the world rushing out to buy one so they can make ears. Another nice fact was that the team also included Ziwen Jiang, a high school student whose mastery at CAD helped them with the designs.

To make the ear they used a hydrogel polymer matrix which contained calf stem cells which go onto form cartilage. The electronic part was made up of silver nanoparticles. The video below goes into more detail on how this was done.

The press statement I read states that ‘the bionic ear can “hear” radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability’. Not difficult considering no human ear can hear radio waves!

But this shouldn’t distract from what potentially could be the prototype for a range of true bionic organs which integrate electronics with biological tissue and have functionality that nature alone can’t manage. There are also applications in reconstructive surgery where life-like body parts can be printed out to order.

So maybe it’s not that far-fetched that in the future we will see people with bionic body parts that outperform our own natural ones. But unlike RoboCop, we just won’t be able to tell they have them…

Teaching ideas

How does a real ear work? This interactive explains in detail. Students could match up the parts of a real ear with the bionic ear.

The Interactive Ear

The Interactive Ear is presented by Amplifon

Could students re-design the ear so it could pick up sound waves? What kind of modifications would it need? The team intend to incorporate other materials, such as pressure-sensitive electronic sensors.

The story includes novel uses of hydogel, nanoparticles and stem cells.

Weblinks

Article from the RSC’s Chemistry World