Millions of people suffering from chronic middle ear disease stand to benefit from groundbreaking technology developed by a team of Perth and Melbourne researchers and scientists.
The painful and debilitating disease is often brought on by perforated eardrums, which reduce hearing and cause serious infections, taking the lives of about 30,000 people annually. An estimated 330 million people are currently impacted by the condition worldwide.
But help is on the way thanks to the dynamic team led by the Perth-based surgeon scientist Professor Marcus Atlas from the Ear Science Institute Australia (ESIA) and Ear Science Centre at the University of WA in collaboration with fibre experts at Deakin University’s Future Fibres Hub.
They have created a tiny silk implant the size of a contact lens known as a ClearDrum on which the patient’s own cells grow and flourish, resulting in a healed eardrum.
The revolutionary surgical device is the result of exhaustive design, manufacturing, testing and analysis in the laboratories at ESIA and Deakin, and the implants now show the ability to perform even better than a person’s original eardrum.
Last year, the project received a grant of $3.8 million from the UK Welcome Trust, allowing the research team to complete the development stage of the device and to commence clinical trials.
The Welcome Trust is a global charitable foundation, which currently spends approximately $4.5 billion on more than 3000 international projects.
Professor Atlas and Professor Xungai Wang from Deakin University travelled to London to provide details of their work to the Trust and were elated when the grant came through to assist the project.
WA’s own Nobel Laureate, Professor Barry Marshall, renowned for his work on peptic ulcers, is a big fan of the pioneering project.
“ClearDrum is an example of the groundbreaking research and world-first innovations being conducted here in Perth,” he said.
“It puts Western Australia on the map for science and showcases how research can result in solutions that have a global impact on the lives of so many millions of people.”
Approximately one centimetre in diameter, the cone-shaped implants are paper-thin and transparent, and are a game-changer for patients and doctors alike.
They are strong and able to withstand inner ear pressure, vibrate just like a natural eardrum, are biocompatible and biodegrade when the eardrum regenerates, and are easy to insert and manipulate during surgery.
Prof. Atlas, who specialises in ear and hearing disorders, said the biocompatibility, strength and transparency of the implant provides an advantage for the patient that has never been seen before.
He said the reduced complexity and time in surgery provides a real advantage, and will allow the implant to be used in more cases, and by more surgeons in more countries, than current solutions.
Traditionally, surgery for eardrum perforations has involved taking tissue from the patient’s own body and which is used to fill the space left by the perforation.
Yet lack of tissue with similar properties to the eardrum is what motivated the team to seek a more suitable and effective treatment for the condition.
The device will not only improve a patient’s ability to hear, but will allow doctors to see through the device when implanted, so they can identify any infections or conditions occurring behind the eardrum – currently a common cause of repeat surgery. This is not possible with an intact, opaque eardrum.
The ESIA hopes to commence clinical trials next year and make the device globally accessible soon after testing is completed.
The goal is to develop simple application methods that will allow it to be used in outpatient procedures worldwide, including in underdeveloped countries where perforated eardrum aliments are very common.
ESIA will soon be moving into the new Ralph and Patricia Sarich Neuroscience Research Institute in Nedlands, uniting WA’s leading hearing specialist organisation with four other WA neuroscience organisations.
The five organisations set to become neighbours in the collaborative hub are ESIA, Alzheimer’s Association, Perron Institute, Edith Cowan University and Curtin University.
ESIA Chairman John Schaffer said the move has great significance for the advancement of the the group’s work in many fields, including research into Usher Syndrome in which patients go deaf and blind at the same time.
“Hearing research is a critical part of neuroscience,” said Mr Schaffer at the opening of the new building. ”The sense of hearing is a vital part of our brain.
“We are currently conducting critical research into Usher Syndrome. Right now we are working on genetics and stem cell research to find a solution for these patients, with an end goal of restoring their hearing.”
Mr Schaffer said ESIA was also currently working on the link between hearing and cognition and, in particular how hearing loss is linked to dementia.
“The findings from this research could dramatically impact the way we treat aging,” he said. “We know that hearing loss worsens as we age and our preliminary data shows that we can modify cognition if we treat this hearing loss.
“Imagine if through the research we do here, we were to discover that hearing holds one of the keys to reducing the onset or severity of dementia.
“We are very excited about our own research and the new collaborative opportunities the new building will offer,” he added.
Could more Nobel Prizes be in the offing? Time will tell!