SCIENCE
09/28/2012 08:18 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2012

Ear Reconstruction Utilizes Patient's Tissue, Forearm In Innovative Surgery (PHOTO)

After 42-year-old Sherrie Walter of Bel Air, Maryland had her left ear surgically removed following a bout with an aggressive form of skin cancer, doctors determined that only a real, living replacement would do.

In January 2011, surgeons from Johns Hopkins University embarked on a risky, complex surgical experiment to restore Walter's ear using her own bone, cartilage and skin, a procedure that required six operations and took 20 months.

"It's my skin, my bone, and the most realistic surgical replacement to what my ear was before my cancer," Sherrie Walter said in a release detailing what doctors have described as "one of the most complicated ear reconstructions ever performed at Johns Hopkins."

After harvesting more than a dozen pieces of reconstruction materials from Walter’s own body, lead surgeon Patrick Byrne, an associate professor in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, carved bone and stitched cartilage to make a precise match of Walter’s other ear, Baltimore Fishbowl reports.

PHOTO:

ear reconstruction surgery

Once the ear was made, they implanted it under the skin in Walter’s forearm, where it lived for four months until her skin stretched and grew around it.

On Tuesday, Walter underwent her final major ear restoration surgery, which included inserting a bone-anchored hearing aid.

Remaining surgeries will seek to shape, carve out and add more definition to her new ear, university officials say.

In 2007, researchers at the school employed a similar technique, piecing together more than a dozen bits of bone, cartilage, skin, arteries and veins to rebuild the nose of an Iraq War veteran who had been disfigured in a Humvee accident.

Until now, researchers haven't been able to overcome obstacles to making "living" ear reconstruction practical, Cathryn Sundback, director of the tissue engineering lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Associated Press earlier this month.

Her lab has been experimenting with a different solution that uses a computer model of a patient's remaining ear to craft a titanium framework covered in collagen, which gives skin elasticity and strength.

The technique, Sundback says, is pending Food and Drug Administration approval.

Check out the slideshow below for other incredible reconstructive surgeries--but be warned: images are not for the faint of heart.

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