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Newborn Butterfly Project Non-Surgically Corrects Infant Ear Deformities

NEW YORK (February 27, 2015) — 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.

Dr. Melissa Doft

In their study, published today 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

Before and after photos document the transformation of infant ears using the EarWell device.
Photo Credit: Dr. Melissa Doft

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.

While ear molding has been taking place for centuries, the technique has traditionally been less effective in correcting deformities. Until recently, physicians had advised new parents to use dental paste, feeding tubes and paper tape to make a hodge-podge of a mold that could reshape their baby’s ears. However, this placed the onus of shaping the ear on the baby’s parents, who can be overwhelmed with caring for a small child. The makeshift mold also wiggled and shifted so the ear was not continuously being folded into the correct position, elongating treatment times. The EarWell device, released five years ago, changed things, Dr. Doft said.

“The EarWell is a little cradle that holds the ear in the perfect position so the parents do not have to do anything,” Dr. Doft said. “They just leave it on and do not even have to think about it. It applies pressure to the ear to conform to a more natural anatomy 24/7.”

Once estrogen levels return to normal — when infants are about six weeks old — using non-surgical means to fix deformities becomes less reliable, causing infants with ear abnormalities to wait and have ear surgery later in life. Many children have the surgery, called otoplasty, later in their childhood, but like all surgeries, it comes with pain and some risk, including infection, hematoma and anesthesia-related complications. With otoplasty, there’s also a 20 percent chance that the deformity will reoccur if the stiches break. The EarWell’s higher success rate and pain-free process may make it a more attractive option for parents.

“The fact that non-surgical ear molding is more successful than surgical correction is noteworthy,” Dr. Doft said, adding that there are some things — like changes to the soft curves of the ear or certain ridges — that can be much better corrected with molding.

Ease of use

The EarWell Infant Ear Correction System, shown above, is an ear mold used to non-surgically shape newborn ears with abnormalities. 
Photo Credit: Dr. Melissa Doft

The procedure is pain-free, does not impact children’s ability to hear and does not affect parents’ ability to breast-feed. “The device is perforated, so the babies can hear perfectly fine. You can breast-feed with it. The only limitation is that you need to try not to get it wet because of the adhesive that sticks onto the baby’s skin,” Dr. Doft said. “Otherwise, you just treat it as if the baby is wearing little earmuffs.”

In the patients who participated in the study, Dr. Doft placed the EarWell within the first six weeks of life, sometimes when the child was still in the newborn nursery. The investigators monitored the patients throughout treatment, which lasted 14 days on average (between nine and 42 days), and reviewed outcomes over two years. The study authors also surveyed parents at the time of placing the EarWell, immediately after treatment, and again at six and 12 months.

Prior to treatment, 73 percent of parents said that they believed the deformity would lead to “severe psychological harm,” Dr. Doft said. “If you look at the research, that worry makes sense,” she said, citing the prevalence of stories in the news on the bullying and teasing of children who have abnormal ears. “They’re definitely affected by it.”

If more people knew about — and took advantage of — this option, Dr. Doft said, future surgical intervention and psychological trauma could be avoided. “With doctors, healthcare professionals and parents working together,” Dr. Doft said, “we are able to produce outcomes that can only happen during a short time-window in newborn infants’ lives — something we have never been able to achieve before.”

Study co-authors include Anthony N. LaBruna, Ashutosh Kacker and Jennifer I. DiPace from Weill Cornell Medical College. At the time of the study, co-authors Shawn Diamond was a medical student at Weill Cornell and Alison Goodkind was an undergraduate student at Barnard College.

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, located in New York City, is one of the leading academic medical centers in the world, comprising the teaching hospital NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical College, the medical school of Cornell University. NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine, and is committed to excellence in patient care, education, research and community service. Weill Cornell physician-scientists have been responsible for many medical advances — including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer; the synthesis of penicillin; the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S.; the first clinical trial for gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease; the first indication of bone marrow’s critical role in tumor growth; and, most recently, the world’s first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital also comprises NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/Westchester Division, NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital, and NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital. The hospital is also closely affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Hudson Valley Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Lawrence Hospital. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area, according to U.S. News & World Report, and consistently named to the magazine’s Honor Roll of best hospitals in the nation. Weill Cornell Medical College is the first U.S. medical college to offer a medical degree overseas and maintains a strong global presence in Austria, Brazil, Haiti, Tanzania, Turkey and Qatar. For more information, visit www.nyp.org and weill.cornell.edu.

Weill Cornell Medical College

Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University's medical school located in New York City, is committed to excellence in research, teaching, patient care and the advancement of the art and science of medicine, locally, nationally and globally. Physicians and scientists of Weill Cornell Medical College are engaged in cutting-edge research from bench to bedside aimed at unlocking mysteries of the human body in health and sickness and toward developing new treatments and prevention strategies. In its commitment to global health and education, Weill Cornell has a strong presence in places such as Qatar, Tanzania, Haiti, Brazil, Austria and Turkey. Through the historic Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, the Medical College is the first in the U.S. to offer its M.D. degree overseas. Weill Cornell is the birthplace of many medical advances — including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer, the synthesis of penicillin, the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S., the first clinical trial of gene therapy for Parkinson's disease, and most recently, the world's first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. Weill Cornell Medical College is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where its faculty provides comprehensive patient care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The Medical College is also affiliated with Houston Methodist. For more information, visit weill.cornell.edu.

Posted February 27, 2015 1:05 PM | Permalink to this post

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