Cochlear implant scientist wins top award

By Natalie Muller 21 November 2011
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Professor Graeme Clark, pioneer of the bionic ear, has won the 2011 CSL Florey Medal for biomedical research.

MOST OF PROFESSOR Graeme Clark’s colleagues thought he was crazy when he proposed the invention of a bionic ear for deaf people.

“I think it’s fair to say that 99 per cent of scientists around the world said it wouldn’t work,” Graeme says. “I was seen as a… well they used to refer to me as ‘that clown Clark,’ not town clerk, but clown Clark.”

When he started his research in 1967, Graeme, whose father suffered from hearing problems, says many people rejected his idea that electrical stimulation of the inner ear could help people with severe deafness. He’s grateful this big idea worked out.

Today Graeme has been named the winner of the prestigious CSL Florey Medal with $50,000 prize money at Parliament House in Canberra.

Pioneering the cochlear implant

In 1978 Graeme performed the first cochlear implant on patient Rod Saunders. It was the culmination of more than a decade’s research, first at the University of Sydney, then, from 1970, at the University of Melbourne.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of adults and children have had their lives transformed by his invention.

“Someone who’s got hearing does not realise how fundamentally important speech and hearing is to deaf people,” Graeme says. “It’s done wonders in many ways. It helps people communicate, [and] gives near-normal spoken language to children if they’re operated on earlier – things that weren’t dreamed possible when I started.”

Hearing near perfect with hi-fi cochlear implant

But, Graeme says, there is still work to be done on improving the fidelity of the sound, especially for hearing in noisy surroundings or listening to music. And the 76-year-old isn’t planning on retiring any time soon.

“We have got quite close to reproducing how the brain functions – but not close enough,” he says. “Although it’s the first major development in communicating to the brain from the outside world that’s been clinically successful, I said when I started I wouldn’t be satisfied until we got near-perfect hearing and so that dream is still to be realised.”

For the past few years Graeme has been working towards creating a next generation hi fi bionic ear. Today he announced he’s joining NICTA, Australia’s National Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence, to try and close the gap between electronics and the brain.

When the first cochlear implant patient, Rod, died in 2007, his brain stem and temple bones were donated to Graeme’s research.

“I believe that it’s going to really let us see what his nerves look like and how the electrical current spread to them inside his body,” Graeme says. Rod’s unique collection of psycho-physical results will provide an insight into how an implant affects perception, he adds.

Among Australia’s best scientists

The CSL Florey medal is named after Howard Florey, the Australian pharmacologist who discovered penicillin’s antibiotic properties. Former Australian winners include Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for their discovery that bacteria causes stomach ulcers, Colin Masters for his breakthrough research on Alzheimer’s disease, and Ian Frazer for developing the cervical cancer vaccine.

CSL (Central Science Laboratory) chief scientist Dr Andrew Cuthbertson says Graeme is a worthy winner. “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,” he says.

The medal awards excellence in biomedical research and is presented every second year by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science.