Australian bionic ear pioneer Professor Graeme Clark will receive the CSL Florey Medal tonight in the presence of 90 of his peers at the 2011 Association of Australian Medical Research Institute’s annual dinner in the Mural Hall at Parliament House Canberra.
Over the past thirty years hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives transformed by Graeme Clark’s invention. Thirty-three years after Rod Saunders became the first recipient of Clark’s bionic ear, Graeme is returning to the laboratory to improve the bionic ear, and the new generation of bionic devices following it.
Today he announced that he will be joining NICTA, Australia’s national ICT Research Centre of Excellence, to help them close the gap between electronics and the brain – making better connections and enabling a bionic ear that would provide true hi-fi hearing.
And, he will bring to the laboratory precious brain and ear samples donated by Rod Saunders, the first recipient of the bionic ear. Rod died in 2007 and bequeathed his body to medical science.
In winning the CSL Florey Medal, Graeme joins an elite bunch of Australian medical researchers following in the footsteps of Howard Florey who developed penicillin.
- Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, for discovering that bacteria cause stomach ulcers;
- Jacques Miller, who unravelled the role of the thymus in the immune system;
- Colin Masters, for his pivotal work on Alzheimer’s disease;
- Peter Coleman, who unveiled the structure of the ’flu virus, leading to the anti-‘flu drug Relenza;
- Ian Frazer, for the development of the vaccine against cervical cancer.
The medal has been presented every two years since 1998 by Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS).
The prize money has doubled this year thanks to the support of CSL. “We deeply appreciate the support of CSL. This is a time when medical research needs champions, and with CSL’s help we are recognising and promoting those champions to all Australians and the next generation,” says Elektra Spathopoulos, AIPS executive director.
“Graeme Clark is a fitting winner,” says CSL’s Chief Scientist, Dr Andrew Cuthbertson. “Professor Clark had a big idea and took it through a tortuous scientific and regulatory path to create a device that has transformed the lives of people around the world. His ideas have seeded many other initiatives in bionics.”
Now 76, Graeme shows little sign of slowing down. “I don’t think I’m genetically engineered to wind down, but I’m trying hard, for my family’s sake.”
More information, photos and links at www.scienceinpublic.com.au/floreymedal
For NICTA: Dorothy Kennedy, Dorothy.Kennedy@nicta.com.au, +61 488 229 687
For AAMRI: Nicole den Elzen, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0431 666 346.
Graeme Clark – back to the lab
(background information for 2011 CSL Florey Medal)
Twenty-nine years after Rod Saunders had become the first recipient of a bionic ear, Prof Graeme Clark, its inventor and champion, asked him what he thought of the device. “Speech sounds wonderful,” came the answer, “but music is shocking.”
At that point Graeme, whose research has delivered hearing to 250,000 people in more than 100 countries, realised he still had work to do on his cochlear implant—to improve the fidelity of its sound. But he also recognised that the research that needed to be done would lead to new knowledge of how the brain works, and potential spin-offs in many other areas, such as the bionic eye and treatment for paralysis.
Graeme is synonymous with the Bionic Ear Institute and Cochlear, the company that took the bionic ear to commercial success. But most of the early work on the ear was in fact conducted at the University of Melbourne. And soon he’ll be back on campus.
After stepping down from directorship of the Bionic Ear Institute, Graeme has worked at Centres of Excellence at the University of Wollongong and, for the past three years, at La Trobe University as its first Distinguished Professor. He is now shifting to the National Information and Communication Technology Australia (NICTA) laboratories in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Melbourne University.
These movements actually parallel his drive to create hi-fi cochlear implants.
There are two major challenges in providing hearing to the profoundly deaf via an electronic device which connects into the auditory nervous network in the inner ear. First, you have to develop a sophisticated and robust link between the external device and the sensory nerves. Then you need to feed electrical impulses which are capable of being interpreted by the brain through that connection. For high fidelity sound, both these will have to be upgraded.
At Wollongong, in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science which he helped to establish, Graeme and colleagues have been working on polymers which can be directed or steered by electrical impulses. The researchers aim to develop electrodes which, even after they have been surgically implanted in the cochlea, can be moved to the best position, close to the nerves—in effect, they would allow the implant to be tuned.
Studies at La Trobe have focused on checking what happens physiologically in mice when the electrodes of a cochlear implant are stimulated electronically. “But knowing how the system functions doesn’t tell us what a person is experiencing,” Graeme says. That’s the Holy Grail for bionic researchers. And the samples gifted by Rod Saunders may hold the key.
Bring on the super computers
Rod received three bionic ears – starting with the first experimental model. And he enthusiastically participated in studies to determine how the bionic ear and his brain were interacting.
So there is a vast amount of psychophysical data – showing what Rod perceived in response to the electrical signals from his bionic ear. Now Graeme can combine that with the latest in micro CT scans, MRI and old-fashioned histology.
Armed with all this data on how the auditory system operates, the impact of electronic stimulus, and feedback from patients on what they are hearing under particular circumstances, Graeme is off to NICTA. He’ll be working with Terry Caelli, a research director at NICTA whose training and career bridges maths, mathematical psychology and physics.
Together, modelling the brain using supercomputers, they hope to develop a model of how the brain translates sound into speech.
And Graeme will also be mentoring the next generation of bionics researchers at NICTA and the University of Melbourne.
Read more about Graeme’s development of the bionic ear at http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au/prime-ministers-prize/clark
The CSL Florey Medal
The Florey Medal is awarded biennially to an Australian biomedical researcher for significant achievements in biomedical science and / or human health advancement. In addition to the silver medal, the award currently carries a prize of $50,000 due to the generous support of CSL Limited.
This award was established in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in honour of the Australian Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Sir Howard Florey, who developed penicillin.
The Florey Medal is part of the Tall Poppy Campaign which aims to recognise and promote scientific and intellectual excellence in Australia.
Graeme Clark, who has won many significant awards over the years, emphasises that this one is especially important to him for several reasons. “Awards are always welcome. They are a nice confirmation that this work, initially thought to be quite mad, has finally been recognised by others. But this award is special because it recognises Florey, who is an outstanding scientist whose work benefited humanity. And it is Australian.”
Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS)
The Australian Institute of Policy and Science is an independent and non-partisan not-for-profit organisation first founded in 1932. We have grown with Australia’s public policy history and work to:
- Increase public engagement in science
- Promote excellence in research, innovation and the promotion and communication of science
- Inform and influence policy and policy-making
- Invest in a scientifically inspired, literate and skilled Australia that contributes to local and global social challenges
AIPS achieves its objectives through an extensive network of partners spanning university, government, industry and community actors.
NICTA (National ICT Australia Ltd)
NICTA is Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence. Our primary goal is to build and deliver excellence in ICT research and commercial outcomes for Australia. NICTA aspires to be one of the world’s top ten ICT research centres by 2020.
Since NICTA was founded in 2002, it has created five new companies, developed a substantial technology and intellectual property portfolio. It continues to supply new talent to the ICT industry through a NICTA-supported PhD program. NICTA has five laboratories around the country. With over 700 people, NICTA is the largest organisation in Australia dedicated to ICT research.