Cochlear (ASX: COH) recently announced the next phase in long-term research and development program with the start of a further clinical feasibility study. A further clinical feasibility study has been initiated to evaluate the totally implantable cochlear implant technology.
What can be the next big breakthrough in the world-leading technology that surgeon Graeme Clark pioneered in Melbourne four decades ago, the company Cochlear is boarding on clinical trials of a fully implantable hearing device. Whether they are sleeping, showering, swimming or even gardening in hot weather, the fully implantable hearing device should enable patients to hear 24 hours a day, which is a degree of functionality current implants can’t deliver. They rely on external sound processors and batteries to make the implanted hearing devices work properly these have to be removed when sleeping or entering water.
The new fully internal implant includes a battery and sound processor which is now being trialled. At the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne, one patient in the clinical trial has already been implanted, tuned in and switched on. Hopes to recruit another 10 patients to try the experimental implants out over the next two years, leading the trial with Robert Cowan, is Robert Briggs, the surgeon of the HEARing Co-operative Research Centre.
When first implanted in a patient at the Eye and Ear, Associate Professor Briggs said, the conventional Cochlear device was a breakthrough because before that in patients with profound hearing loss it was not clear that you could restore hearing. The first generation of the fully implantable device was implanted in three patients in 2005 and 2006, for a Phase 1 trial, but it was only a qualified success. To be capable of cancelling out the gurgling, sucking sounds which are body noises, the technology used in the internal microphones at the time wasn’t sophisticated enough.
Cochlear’s chief technology officer said brain does a pretty good job of suppressing these sounds but when a microphone is inserted beneath the skin it’s a bit different and it makes the sound a lot louder. Like an iPhone or a Tesla electric vehicle, the latest microchips will enable the implants to download new software upgrades as they become available, Cochlear hopes vastly improved noise-cancelling microphone technology of the last decade has solved the body noises problem.
By attaching the optional external sound processor, or inductively through the skin via a charger that sits behind the ear, the internal battery can be recharged slowly when a proper charge is needed. A significant part of Cochlear’s annual research and development spend of 12 percent of sales or just over $160 million are absorbed by the development of the current version of the device and the clinical trial.
To try to wait for increased functionality and convenience of the fully implantable Cochlear device it would be a mistake for patients with profound hearing loss, because the benefits of the existing devices are proven, and delaying implantation can reduce those benefits. Associate Professor Briggs said, on top of the one-and-a-half-hour surgery for a conventional Cochlear implant because of the increased size of the device means the operation to implant it takes an extra 90 minutes, but the surgery is still straightforward.
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