Our hearing ability naturally declines from age 30 or 40, according to the South African Hearing Institute. In fact, by age 80, more than half of humans will suffer from significant hearing loss. Although this is a natural part of ageing, hearing loss may also occur as a result of disease or infection; it could be inherited or be the result of physical damage to the ears or head.
But a pioneering surgical procedure developed by Professor Mashudu Tshifularo, head of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Health Sciences, that uses 3D-printed middle ear bones (ossicles) may be the answer to one particular form of hearing loss – conductive hearing loss, a middle ear problem caused by congenital birth defects, infection, trauma or metabolic diseases.
“3D technology is allowing us to do things we never thought we could,” says Prof Tshifularo.
The surgery can be performed on everyone, including newborns, and has benefitted three patients already. The latest patient, who was born with an underdeveloped middle ear, had the transplant surgery that involves using 3D-printing technology to print the bones of the middle ear. These reconstructed bones were then used to replace the hammer, anvil and stirrup, the ossicles that make up the middle ear.
The procedure also aims to simplify the reconstruction of ossicles during middle ear procedures, such as ossiculoplasty and stapedectomy, in order to increase the chance of success with minimal intrusion trauma. Prof Tshifularo’s procedure reduces the likelihood of facial nerve paralysis, which can occur if the facial nerve that passes through the middle ear space is damaged during traditional surgery.
“By replacing only the ossicles that aren’t functioning properly, the procedure carries significantly less risk than known prostheses and their associated surgical procedures,” Prof Tshifularo explains. “We will use titanium and/or silver for this procedure, which are both biocompatible. We use an endoscope to do the replacement, so the transplant is expected to be quick, with minimal scarring.”
UP continues to promote research and innovation excellence in all spheres of its academic and extramural offerings – Prof Tshifularo’s achievement is one of many that is sure to have lasting benefits.