UTS researchers advise global leader Cochlear on biofilms for implantable hearing solutions
The ongoing research partnership between UTS and Cochlear Limited sets out to capitalise on each organisations strengths in research, commercialisation and healthcare. Cochlear implants have been providing solutions for the hearing impaired since Australian man Rod Saunders was fitted with the first Cochlear device in 1978. As demand for the implant continues to grow, so too does the need for a substantial body of research around best practice for the design, manufacture and implantation of Cochlear products. UTS has been able to support Cochlear in this endeavour.
Researchers at the UTS ithree institute have been undertaking pioneering work with the global leader in implantable hearing solutions since the original partnership in 2006, providing research expertise in the area of bacterial biofilms, which are communities of micro-organisms that stick to each other or a surface and can cause chronic infections of implanted medical devices. All implanted medical devices are at risk of implant associated biofilm infection. While the risk with Cochlear implants is particularly low when compared with other implants, the impact of an infection on the cochlear implant user is significant.
In 2006, Cochlear approached Associate Professor Cynthia Whitchurch to help inform best design practices for minimising bacterial adhesion and hence inhibiting the formation of bacterial biofilms on their implantable hearing device. At that time, Whitchurch was working as an established researcher in the field of bacterial biofilms at Monash University. Cochlear asked Whitchurch to consider how the design could be changed to reduce the adhesion of bacteria on the devices and therefore reduce the chances of an infection becoming established.
“I conducted a series of experiments to identify the location of the biofilm on the devices and which features of that device really seemed to readily accommodate the bacteria,” Whitchurch said.
The effort was collaborative. Whitchurch and the engineers at Cochlear worked in partnership to remove bacterial hotspots and then test the design modifications to demonstrate the benefit. The engineers modified the design based on Whitchurch’s research observations. The new model was tested in vitro in the laboratories at UTS before being progressed into approved products. It was during these final stages of testing that Whitchurch relocated to UTS to lead a research team in the (now) ithree institute.
The impact of her research was significant. The new implant design has an infection rate that is 50% lower than earlier designs.
The collaboration not only resulted in the improvement of the implant design; but it also evolved to a point where Cochlear wanted to appoint UTS environmental microbiologist, Dr Rosalia Cavaliere, as the first UTS Cochlear Research Fellow.
“… with a company, it's always hard to establish a long-term collaboration. But once you've established trust… that then becomes a successful collaboration,” said Dr Cavaliere.
Since 2006, UTS and Cochlear have developed trust in each other to support further collaboration.
The unique relationship between the two organisations has helped build Cochlear’s profile as a leader in collaborative research opportunities and has reinforced UTS’ objective to be a world-leading university of technology.