Have you heard? Pioneering ear surgeon ready for critics
Pretoria University professor talks about being the first to transplant a 3D-printed bone into the ear of a patient
The University of Pretoria's Prof Mashuba Tshifularo has a strong message for his critics: “Let them come. No one has been doing it. This is unique.”
Tshifularo is expecting criticism from his academic colleagues for being the first in the world to transplant a 3D-printed bone into the middle ear of a patient with hearing loss.
He says cryptically that he has received some criticism and is expecting more. He is ready.
“Let them come,” he repeats, as he describes himself as a pioneer.
Tshifularo, who became a professor at the former Medunsa University at the age of 35, realised the rod-like sticks used in place of missing ear bones were “very inappropriate”.
“In the process of doing my PhD, I realised the prosthesis we are using to replace broken bone ... is very inappropriate. It has not given us a good sound outcome.”
But replacement hip bones looked like real hip bones, he noticed. “When I started medicine, the hip replacement we used to use was nails and screws. Can you go to any doctors and use nails and screws now [for a hip replacement]?”
So he decided that if there were realistic hip and knee implants, why not middle ear bones?
“This is what I want to change for ear, nose and throat specialists; to change from [using] rods to normal [titanium] bones.”
He thinks patients will hear better if given more realistic transplants. He didn’t want to delay the procedure until years-long clinical trials were conducted, especially since every request for funding from local scientific and research foundations was rejected.
“I am an academic ... if we delay and delay, someone else is going to pioneer it. I wanted to be the pioneer, to be first.
“The main idea is to say, look, we are going to be the first, in South Africa.”
He added that if someone claimed to be the first to do it, they would be wrong because “Tshifularo has done it in Pretoria”.
But he is ready for critics. He has not conducted lengthy trials or published this procedure in any journal yet. Trials and five academic articles are planned.
“I will deal with my academic colleagues; I know they are going to criticise. Being in the field for so long, I know what to say. I have answers for them.
“They don’t know that I have been working on this too long,” he said.
As a specialist in hearing loss due to broken and missing ear bones, Tshifularo said the prosthetic rods used instead of bones had given him “sleepless nights for 10 years”.
He said critics also didn’t know he had been practising this surgery on donated human temporal bones in a lab setting. He practised for two hours on the night before the operation, and knew exactly what to do. He was able to teach and explain to those watching.
He is presenting his findings at an international congress in Poland in July. He also expects funding to finally come his way, but now “it will be on my terms”.
The professor, from Limpopo, is also a pastor, with his own religious website.
His 3D ear bone designs are patented. But what he came up with goes beyond 3D printing design, into how he attaches the titanium bones to the ear.
“The whole design and surgery is a completely new concept. There are a lot of secrets up my sleeves,” he said.
There is work being done abroad to design 3D-printed bones that mimic the ear bones, but Tshifularo is the first to be able to operate on humans using such prosthetic bones.
Why hasn’t anyone done this?
“I can’t answer that. Maybe I am just brilliant,” he says, and laughs.
“So, anybody who comes with new ideas, you can’t ask why other people were not thinking ... Maybe I am just the pioneer.”
His first patient, Thabo Molishiwa, 39, was more than happy to be operated on.
He has had no hearing in his right ear since being assaulted in 2016. Conventional operations in 2018 failed to help.
“When Prof [Tshifularo] asked if I would [agree to the procedure], I couldn’t resist. I was very much happy. I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to get my hearing back.”
His girlfriend of two-and-a-half years, Lerato, became irritated when he didn’t hear with his left ear, and accused him of not listening.
Molishiwa said he hoped his hearing would return, adding that, since this morning, he could hear vibrations when he touched his ear.