When surgical residents need to practice a complicated procedure to fashion a new ear for children without one, they typically get a bar of soap, carrot or an apple.

To treat children with a missing or under-developed ear, experienced surgeons harvest pieces of rib cartilage from the child and carve them into the framework of a new ear. They take only as much of that precious cartilage as they need.

That leaves medical residents without an authentic material to practice on, as vegetables are a pale substitute. Some use pig or adult cadaver ribs, but children's ribs are a different size and consistency.

Now, a collaboration between a University of Washington otolaryngology resident and bioengineering student has used 3-D printing to create a low-cost pediatric rib cartilage model that more closely resembles the feel of real cartilage and allows for realistic surgical practice. The innovation could open the door for aspiring surgeons to become proficient in the sought-after but challenging procedure.

Their results are described in an abstract presented this week at the American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery conference in Dallas.

"It's a huge advantage over what we're using today," said lead author Angelique Berens, a UW School of Medicine otolaryngology -- head and neck surgery resident. "You literally take a bar of Lever 2000 while the attending is operating and you carve ear cartilage. It does teach you how to get the shape right, but the properties are not super accurate -- you can't bend it, and sewing it is not very lifelike."

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