$8.5 million donation supports hearing science, innovation at Western U

Taryn Armstrong recalls several close calls walking her children to the bus stop down the road from their house in Chatham, Ont. Living with Ménière’s disease, a disease of the inner ear, she suffers from progressive hearing loss that makes it difficult to hear passing vehicles.

“Keep me up at night,” she said. “I am their mother, I have to protect them.

Diagnosed at age 24, Armstrong rapidly lost hearing in her right ear, requiring a hearing aid within four years. Then symptoms began to appear in her left ear, putting her at risk of total hearing loss.

“Hearing is such an important part of life. As a mother of three children, noise is simply an integral part of everyday life. When I don’t hear my kids, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.

A new $8.5 million donation from global hearing implant company MED-EL will help patients like Armstrong by supporting hearing research and innovation at Western University.

Western has matched MED-EL’s endowment to establish two new research chairs—one in neurology and translational auditory innovation and the other in auditory biophysics and engineering—to independently conduct innovative hearing research.

First Chair holders Dr. Sumit Agrawal and Dr. Hanif Ladakh are leaders in translational hearing science—combining expertise in imaging technology, mathematics, biophysics, engineering, neurotology, and surgery.

“We want to learn more about the ear and offer better solutions to address hearing loss of all kinds,” said Ingeborg Hochmayr, MED-EL co-founder and global CEO and CTO. “With these chairs, we hope to facilitate collaboration between implant developers, researchers, surgeons and patients to make that happen.”

By 2050, more than 700 million people worldwide — one in 10 — will have disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. And if left untreated, hearing loss results in an annual global cost of approximately US$980 billion.

“It’s exciting to work with an industry leader like MED-EL to address a health issue that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Western President Alan Shepard. “MED-EL will change lives through this investment in interdisciplinary research, and we are thrilled that they have chosen to partner with Western clinical scientists and engineers.”

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As longtime research partners, Ladak, a biomedical engineer, and Agrawal, a clinician-scientist, are focused on personalizing cochlear implant programming, moving from a standard, one-size-fits-all approach to implant maps that account for each patient’s specific anatomy.

“It’s like tuning a piano,” explained Agrawal, an otologist-neurologist and professor at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. “Patients get a cochlear implant and it can be massively out of whack by an octave or two – they can understand speech, but music or tonal languages ​​are difficult. By fine-tuning the implants, we hope to significantly improve their sound quality and listening experience.”

Using imaging data and artificial intelligence, the researchers created a personalized mapping tool that identifies how the cochlear implant electrodes should be programmed for each individual patient.

The tool is based on information gathered from high-resolution 3D imaging of the cochlea completed in collaboration with the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan, a national research facility that provides a specialized type of imaging using synchrotron light. From there, the researchers teamed up with Dr. Helge Rask-Andersen of Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden to reveal anatomical details in the images.

Agrawal and Ladak are currently conducting a randomized controlled trial in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to test their mapping tool and its benefits for patients.

“We are grateful for the donation from MED-EL,” said Ladak, a professor in Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and the School of Engineering. “This creates opportunities that will further advance cochlear implant technology to improve patient outcomes.” As a biomedical engineer, being able to impact patients on this scale is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Dr. John Yu, dean of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, said the partnership with MED-EL speaks to the extraordinary caliber of research and innovation already happening at Western and the School regarding hearing loss.

“We are a globally recognized leader in this space, thanks to the incredible talent, vision and efforts of our clinician scientists and engineers,” he said. “MED-EL’s overwhelming support is a testament to their confidence in our ability to continue to innovate and deliver better solutions for people with hearing loss – and we will deliver.”

A patient of Agrawal’s for more than 12 years, Armstrong was the first person to receive a cochlear implant as part of an ongoing clinical trial.

“It feels surreal knowing that I’ve lost hope for so long and worried so much about the future and all of a sudden I feel like everything is going to be okay,” she said. “Life has changed; gave me back a lot of my confidence.”

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