How The Alfred Mann Foundation helped create a viable multi-channel cochlear implant.
The history of medical devices is full of examples of rudimentary or partial solutions designed to improve one’s hearing. By the second half of the 20th century, hearing aid technologies had drastically improved (and the days of ear trumpets were long gone), but for many patients with profound hearing loss even the most modern electronic hearing aids still fell short of delivering the return to average functioning that was desired.
The University of California San Francisco developed an early prototype of an implantable electronic device that would simulate sound for deaf patients by electrically stimulating the inner ear (the cochlea)—a cochlear implant. The UCSF device was an upgrade from previous attempts at similar technology in that it was multi-channel. Rather than housing a single electrode (capable of producing a low-fidelity “noise” for implant recipients), the UCSF implant featured 16 electrodes, a dramatic upgrade which allowed for higher resolution of sounds. In theory, it could allow the deaf to discern words, to hold conversations, and to reconnect with loved ones in ways they might have never thought impossible.
The UCSF device had potential—but it was light years away from being ready for general use by the patient population.
The Alfred Mann Foundation was established to improve lives through transformative medtech. When Dr. Joe Schulman, founding CEO of The Alfred Mann Foundation, licensed the multi-channel cochlear implant project from UCSF in the mid 1980s, it was time to prove our team could do exactly that.
When the University brought us its device, it was still very much in the prototype stage. The multi-channel feature of the implant—the characteristic that gave it life-changing potential—was also its biggest hurdle. The prototype was too big for practical use by doctors and patients. It comprised four separate components that needed to be implanted, each of which connected to a central hub, creating something of a “spider” effect when in use which would have made for a very complex surgical procedure.
What we had to do was make it smaller, safer, and more durable.
It can be discomforting to consider the fact that the inside of the human body is essentially a saltwater environment. Any medical device that is implanted in the body, and intended for long-term use, must be engineered to withstand corrosive “ocean-like” conditions, and not wear down over time. An electronic implantable device is doubly tricky to perfect, since anyone can tell you that electronics and water typically don’t mix.
The cochlear implant project was an opportunity to demonstrate our depth of knowledge in materials science and implantable devices, and the tremendous feats that can be accomplished with advanced laboratory equipment (and some serious persistence). The Foundation established a top-of-the-line materials science lab in order to perfect the cochlear implant—a lab which is still a point of pride for our team today. With some persistence and lots of hands-on testing, we were able to develop materials, connection points, and componentry that could function properly inside the human body for years on end.
The other concern about the device, its size, took some time to address. The process of miniaturizing and re-engineering components of the device took several years and a few technological developments to fully take shape. But by 1990, our team of scientists and engineers had created a practical prototype that passed all regulatory requirements, and was suitable for clinical trials.
The final result of years of effort was a cochlear implant that was smaller, more user-friendly, sterilizable, and more surgically-robust.
After years of testing, perfecting and developing, the Foundation finally had a revolutionary multi-channel cochlear implant that was ready for the commercial market. To do that, the Foundation and Al Mann launched Advanced Bionics (AB)—a spinout company that could take on the work of effectively commercializing the device and bringing it to patients.
Founded by Al Mann and built around technology originating in the Foundation, Advanced Bionics remains the only manufacturer of cochlear implants in the United States. Now a part of the Sonova Group, a Swiss company with operations in over 50 countries, AB continues to innovate cochlear implant solutions which allow adults and children to make powerful connections with the people they love and the world around them.
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