Hearing loss reversal and other projects share $2.5m in awards
Approximately $2.5 million is being invested in innovative research projects across the ear, nose and throat sector, through The Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation’s 2021 awards to leading scientists and clinicians.
The Passe and Williams Foundation Awards are said to be the most generous medical research funding to a single field across Australia and New Zealand. Over the past 30 years more than $70 million has been awarded to the best people and projects across the ear, nose and throat sector. This has resulted in many world-leading medical advances, including the national newborn hearing screening program, a saliva test for the early detection of throat cancers and using video goggles to detect balance disorders — a breakthrough now in use in over 100 countries.
The Foundation’s $1.25 million Senior Fellowship, the largest award of its 2021 funding round, has gone to Associate Professor Andrew Wise from The Bionics Institute of Australia. His project utilises nanotechnology to treat hearing loss by delivering growth factors into the inner ear.
Noise- and age-related hearing loss are the main causes of hearing impairment in humans. Although there is no drug treatment currently available, research shows that delivering proteins (called neurotrophins) to the inner ear can treat hearing loss by regrowing vital nerve cells. Using nanotechnology, Assoc Prof Wise and Professor Frank Caruso from The University of Melbourne have developed a novel way to deliver neurotrophins by ‘loading’ them into tiny particles created through nanoengineering.
“The hair cells are similar to a microphone, and the lead wire is similar to neurons,” Assoc Prof Wise said. “If you disconnect that microphone from the lead wire, they obviously no longer work. This drug therapy will reconnect those two structures together, so information can be passed to the brain.
“This project aims to deliver groundbreaking hearing loss therapy through a first-in-human trial. This funding should enable those trials to begin within four years, and potentially be on the market not long after.”
The CEO of the Passe and Williams Foundation, Dr Jeanette Pritchard, said the 2021 awards recipients are advancing exciting, significant projects that could change lives, including the use of brain imaging to measure light for the assessment of hearing impairment in infants and the development of an AI-based diagnostic tool to enable GPs to accurately predict vertigo in patients.
“The project to reverse hearing loss is especially significant as more than half a billion people worldwide have serious hearing loss. It’s the most common disability in developed countries,” Dr Pritchard said. “Age and excessive noise exposure are the main causes and there is no medical treatment currently available.”
Bionics Institute CEO Robert Klupacs said the support of the Passe and Williams Foundation had been invaluable in enabling many breakthroughs by researchers. He said, “Andrew Wise’s project could provide the world with a treatment to restore lost hearing, which, if successful, could be life-changing for potentially many millions of people.”
The full list of awardees is as follows:
- Associate Professor Andrew Wise — The Bionics Institute
- Dr Sam Hale — The University of Auckland
- Dr Darren Mao — The Bionics Institute
- Allison Young — Sydney Local Health District
- Dr Al-Rahim Habib — The University of Sydney
- Dr Chao Wang — The University of Sydney
- Dr Theodore Athanasiadis — Flinders University
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