Innovative Hearing-Aid Technology
A new collaboration between Dalhousie University and an American company may lead to better devices for the hearing impaired. The university has entered into a worldwide licensing agreement with Ototronix, LLC of Houston on new technology that treats conductive hearing loss and miniaturizes the power source for a hearing device.
The advancement of the technology began as a collaboration several years ago between Dr. Manohar Bance, professor and acting head of the otolaryngology division, and Jeremy Brown and Rob Adamson from the school of biomedical engineering. “We started out with this idea that you could use piezoelectrics (a charge that accumulates in certain solid materials) just attached directly to the skull,” Adamson said, noting it was Bance who initiated the process. “In large part, it was his initiative to take the clinical ideas he had for treating patients and then to hire engineers to help him see those actually come to fruition.”
Unlike a middle ear implant, which provides direct mechanical stimulation to the cochlea, the Dalhousie device is implanted directly on the skull, which will allow skin to grow over it, rendering it invisible. Once implanted, it will vibrate the skull and those vibrations will make their way down to the cochlea and vibrate it, creating sound. An external power source, which emits ultrasound waves, is located behind the ear and is innocuous and low maintenance, Adamson said. “So for people who have ear problems and can’t transmit sound from their ear canal to the cochlea, this is an alternative way of getting sound there.”
Excited by the results, the research team set out to find a partner to help bring its technology to market. “We started trying to find partners for it, so we presented it at every conference we could find and eventually somebody came up to us afterwards interested in commercializing it,” Adamson said.
Enter Ototronix, whose president and chief executive officer, Michael Spearman, attended a conference in which Brown gave a speech on their work on the new device. Spearman said he immediately identified the device as something different than what’s now on the market. “Everybody was still using some sort of a magnetic device, or a bone vibrator, very similar to what one would get if they went in and had an audiology test,” he said after the Life Sciences Centre announcement. “We saw the implications that this could be very interesting. There’s still a lot more to do as far as the technology and getting it ready, but we had somebody who actually understood them, had already started research on it that no one else was doing.” Devices now on the market are not an “elegant solution,” Spearman said. “While it works somewhat,” he said of existing middle ear implants, “it’s very unesthetically pleasing because there’s a peg sticking through the skull ... and ... there is a lot of complications because the skin will become infected because there’s something sticking through (it).”
The next steps in the process include more research and development, system integration work, animal testing, patient trials and regulatory approval. Patient trials could start in 18 to 24 months, and the device could hit the market in 3 1/2 years if it receives U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, Spearman said.
Ototronix will be helping out the Dalhousie team as the process moves forward. “Part of what we like about this collaboration is that they’ve got a lot of experience with the regulatory approval process, which is complicated and expensive,” Adamson said. Spearman credited the partnership between the clinical and engineering departments with bringing the technology to this point. “There’s a lot of research universities, but not too many of them have that dynamic, plus the focus of saying ‘How do we commercialize something?’ ”