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Newborn butterfly project non-surgically corrects infant ear deformities

A team of researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center has improved a non-surgical procedure that safely and effectively corrects newborn ear deformities in just two weeks – a drastically shorter period of time than previously reported.

In their study, published in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the researchers demonstrate how a rigid plastic mold can be used to reshape deformed ears – softening the curves and re-contouring the cartilage – when applied to newborn infants’ ears within the first few weeks of their lives. They also discovered that the pain-free and non-invasive procedure could effectively transform the ear shape in 14 days, compared to the six to eight weeks doctors have historically advised.

“This research represents a breakthrough in how we treat ear deformities,” said lead author Dr. Melissa Doft, a clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. “Through innovation, we have an opportunity to truly make a difference in children’s lives, helping to decrease the bullying that many children with ear deformities face and eliminating the need for invasive surgical correction later in life.”

The investigators’ findings are based on the outcomes of procedures that Dr. Doft, in collaboration with pediatricians, audiologists and parents, conducted on about 100 newborns (and 158 ears) using the Becon EarWell Infant Ear Correction System between 2010 and 2013 at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. Infants from the newborn nursery were referred directly to Dr. Doft in the first few days of their lives, when ears are characterized by greater plasticity. The investigators found that the process was nearly fail-proof, with a 96 percent success rate, and attributed these outcomes to the young age at which they initiated intervention.

While ear correction is typically cosmetic, early intervention and ear molding with the EarWell is often covered by insurance because it’s considered a congenital deformity. Dr. Doft dubbed her research the Newborn Butterfly Project because abnormal ears are coaxed through a natural metamorphosis, similar to how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Ear deformities and ear molding

Fifteen to 20 percent of all children are born with an ear deformity, which includes constriction, a missing fold, a deep conchal bowl or an obtuse angle. Of these deformities, 30 percent are expected to self-correct, but there is no scientific way to know which ones will improve. Infants are born with high levels of estrogen in their bloodstreams, which peaks at day three of life. This elevated estrogen increases the ear cartilage’s plasticity, allowing the ear to be molded into the correct position.