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How NSW is helping Indian patients by creating silicon ears

“Within twelve months, we’ve learned not only how to develop a printer, we’ve also worked out the clinical need in India and Australia. We can do so much more to deliver these services to patients better.”


Australia and India - A dynamic mix logo design with text 'Listen and Learn'

A 3D bioprinting and AI medical applications project driven by the Universities of Sydney and Wollongong is opening up a world of opportunity for microtia patients, both here and in India. A disease that causes defects of the ear, it’s particularly prevalent in India. An Australia-India Council (AIC) grant has meant that Dr Payal Mukherjee, a clinical associate professor at the University of Sydney, has helped drive progress on a silicon-printing solution that will one day lead to generating new ears using the patients’ own stem cells.

“When we applied for the AIC grant, we wanted something tangible that could make an immediate impact,” she says. “There were no low-cost 3D printers that could work with silicon and we thought, ‘Well, here’s something that we have the knowledge and expertise to develop’.”

Receiving the grant was a huge boost to her collaborative research with colleagues in India, including government-run medical manufacturing hub Andhra Pradesh Medtech Zone (APMZ), and in particular Srinivasan Balasubramaniam. “He’s a 3D printing fanatic and also the president of the prosthetics society in India, so he’s just a very dynamic guy. It all depends on your collaborators, and if they are just as hungry to drive it from their end as we are.”

The commercial possibilities are just as exciting as the ability to reach patients anywhere. “Within 12 months, we’ve learned not only how to develop a printer that does something like this, we’ve also worked out the clinical need in India and Australia” Payal says. “We can do so much more to deliver these services to patients better.”

The scope is incredible. They’ve created an app that allows patients to scan their own ear using just a smartphone. “That allowed us to partner with other institutions in Australia, including Queensland University of Technology on the software aspect… it’s made a lot more collaborations come together because of the noise and excitement of the AIC grant.”

There were practical challenges to overcome, Payal notes. “How do you 3D print something soft? Because as you’re printing it, it’s gloop. If you pipe icing on a cake, right, you need it to be solid enough. So they usually stiffen silicon by heat, but we can’t do that through a 3D printer. So we’ve had to work with Australian providers to tweak UV light to cure the silicon.”

They’ve learned a lot from the Indian side too. The limitations of travel in the time of COVID haven’t stopped that critical dialogue. “Because of the way that they’re set up, our Indian colleagues are very good at taking [an idea] and running with that. Whereas we’re very good at working on the scientific concepts.”

Each country’s strengths inform the other, Payal suggests. “We’ve learned a lot from their side, because we’ve come across clinicians who have been using parts of 3D planning, not 3D printing, in getting the technology to patients faster.”

There’s mutual passion for a project that can genuinely transform lives in both countries, unbound by the tyranny of distance, with a virtual congress already conducted between both countries. The AIC grant has opened so many avenues to share research, ignite manufacturing opportunities and help inform policy. And that has forged better bonds at home too, including with the Indian diaspora. 

“It’s only through the AIC I realised there are so many people working along the same lines,” she says. “We just never work together. So, I think that that’s something on reflecting we can probably, within ourselves, deliver better outcomes with partnerships and learn from each other’s journeys to have better partnerships going forward.”

Learn more about the economic potential of the Australia-India partnership in “An India Economic Strategy to 2035 – Navigating from potential to delivery”.

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