South African surgeons have made another surgical history by performing the world’s first transplant of middle-ear bones using 3D printed components.
The groundbreaking surgery, performed at Steve Biko Academic Hospital on Wednesday, may enable a 40-year-old man to hear better after damaging his middle ear bone in an injury, The Citizen reports.
The 3D-printed middle ear bones were developed by Professor Mashudu Tshifularo and his team at the University of Pretoria (UP).
The procedure “may be the answer to conductive hearing loss — a middle ear problem caused by congenital birth defects, infection, trauma or metabolic diseases,” Pretoria University said in a statement on Thursday.
The ear transplant involved surgically replacing the hammer, anvil, and stirrup, the ossicles – the smallest bones in the body that make up the middle ear – with similarly-shaped titanium pieces produced on a 3D printer.
“By replacing only the ossicles that aren’t functioning properly, the procedure carries significantly less risk than known prostheses and their associated surgical procedures.
“We will use titanium for this procedure, which is biocompatible. We use an endoscope to do the replacement, so the transplant is expected to be quick, with minimal scarring,” Tshifularo explained on the day of surgery.
After one and a half hours in theatre, the operation which was performed by Tshifularo and a team of specialists was successful.
“The patient was very complicated because he had suffered a trauma [injury].
“The patients will get their hearing back immediately but since they will be wrapped in bandages, only after two weeks, when they are removed, will they be able to tell a difference,” Tshifularo said.
The surgery can be done on anyone, including children and adults. So far, two patients have benefitted from the surgery.
Hearing ability naturally declines from age 30 or 40, according to the South African Hearing Institute.Hearing loss could be attributed to ageing, however, it could also be due to disease or infection. One can also inherit the condition or can ruin their hearing after physical damage to the ears or head.
The high-tech surgery reduces the chance of facial nerve paralysis, which can occur if the facial nerve that passes through the middle ear space is damaged during traditional surgery, said SA News.
“3D technology is allowing us to do things we never thought we could,” Tshifularo said.
3D printing is one of the innovative technologies that has benefited the health sector worldwide. As a continent, Africa has also enjoyed the wonders of this tech especially when it comes to surgery.
In 2015, surgeons at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town used 3D technology to print models of the skull and face of Akikere Bassey. The Nigerian girl had a genetic condition called Crouzon Syndrome, characterised by the premature fusion of skull bones and the cranial base.
Grace Kabalenga had her skull removed in 2012 to prevent an infection from a surgery that tried to control her cranial deformity. In 2015, thanks to 3D technology, she underwent an operation to have a forehead implanted into her skull for the bone marrow to grow.
Doctors at Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya successfully separated conjoined twins with the use of 3D tech recently while the technology was also used for landmine survivors from South Sudan.
The trailblazing ear transplant surgery is the latest in a series of medical breakthroughs that have been recorded in South Africa. In 2018, Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg became the first hospital in the world to transplant a liver from an HIV-positive donor to an HIV-negative child.
The HIV-infected mother would have been able to transplant a portion of her liver to her child had she not been infected with HIV. What made this operation different was the fact that it was the first liver donation from a living HIV-positive donor in the country as previous donors were deceased.
Four years before this surgery, doctors of the Stellenbosch University (SU) and the Tygerberg Academic Hospital in Cape Town performed the world’s first penis transplant.