Donation of $8.5 million strengthens hearing science and innovation

Taryn Armstrong pictured with her three childrenTaryn Armstrong, a cochlear implant recipient, lost her hearing at age 24 due to bilateral Meniere’s disease. As a mother, getting her hearing back has been life changing. (supplied photo)

By Emily Leighton

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

“It’s kept me up at night,” she said. “I’m their mom, I’m supposed to keep them safe. 

Diagnosed at age 24, Armstrong rapidly lost hearing in her right ear, requiring a hearing aid within four years. Symptoms then started emerging in her left ear, putting her at risk of total hearing loss.

“Hearing is such a big part of life. As a mom of three, noise is just part and parcel of everyday. When I can’t hear my children, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.

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

Western matched MED-EL’s gift to establish two new endowed research chairs – one in Neurotology and Translational Hearing Innovation and one in Auditory Biophysics and Engineering – to independently pursue innovative hearing technology research.

Inaugural chair holders Dr. Sumit Agrawal and Hanif Ladak, PhD, 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 to come up with better solutions to deal with hearing loss of all kinds,” said Ingeborg Hochmair, MED-EL co-founder and worldwide CEO and CTO. “With these chairs, we hope to facilitate cooperation between implant developers, researchers, surgeons and patients to make that happen.”

By 2050, more than 700 million people globally – one in every 10 – will have disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. And if unaddressed, hearing loss poses an annual global cost of approximately US $980 billion. 

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

As long-time research partners, Ladak, a biomedical engineer, and Agrawal, a clinician-scientist, are focused on customizing cochlear implant programming, moving from the 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-neurotologist and professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “Patients get a cochlear implant, and it can be massively out of tune by one or two octaves – they can understand speech, but music or tonal languages are difficult. By precisely tuning the implants, we’re hoping to greatly improve their sound quality and listening experience.”

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

The tool is based on information gleaned from high-resolution 3D visualizations of the cochlea, completed in collaboration with the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan – a national research facility that provides a specialized kind of imaging using synchrotron light. From there, the researchers partnered with Dr. Helge Rask-Andersen at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden to unlock anatomic details within the images. 

Agrawal and Ladak are currently leading 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, professor at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and the Faculty of Engineering. "It's creating opportunities that will evolve the cochlear implant technology further to improve outcomes for patients. As a biomedical engineer, being able to impact patients at this scale is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Dr. John Yoo, dean of Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, said the partnership with MED-EL speaks to the exceptional calibre of research and innovation that is already happening at Western and the School around 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 tremendous support is a testament to their confidence in our ability to keep innovating and delivering 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 the ongoing clinical trial.

“It feels surreal, knowing that I had lost hope for so long and worried so much about the future, and all of a sudden, I’m feeling like it’s going to be okay,” she said. “It’s been life changing; it’s given me a lot of my confidence back.”