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April 12, 2005

Hear that? Sounds hopeful for paraplegics

From: Australian - Australia - Apr 12, 2005

Michael Davis

TWENTY years after he pioneered cochlear implants, Graeme Clark has been given federal funding to adapt bionic ear technology to help the paralysed feel.

"Our real hope now is that we can make a difference for people who have paraplegia," Professor Clark said yesterday.

"We hope to cross the bridge to restore motor and sensory functions."

John Howard, in Melbourne yesterday, formally opened a national bionics research institute, announcing it would be called the Graeme Clark Medical and Hearing Science Centre, an honour that took Professor Clark by surprise.

The Government will contribute $5.7million to the new centre, while Professor Clark has donated the $300,000 Prime Minister's Science Prize he received last year. A further $35million is needed to continue the research.

Professor Clark, whom Mr Howard dubbed a living national treasure, has devoted 38 years to helping profoundly deaf people understand speech.

"It's been my life's work," he said. Seeing some of those who had benefited from bionic ears at yesterday's launch "almost brings a tear to my eye".

Rod Saunders, who in 1978, at age 46, had the first prototype of the bionic ear fitted, was the oldest recipient at yesterday's launch. Jasmine Wong, 2, was the youngest.

Australia holds 70 per cent of the global market for cochlear implants. Though they do not restore normal hearing, they electrically stimulate nerves in the inner ear to allow people with hearing loss to comprehend speech and many other sounds.

The next generation of bionic ear will use electrodes coated in "smart plastic", called polypyrrole, that incorporates growth factors to encourage resprouting and repair of hearing nerve fibres and hair cells. "We can use these growth factors to actually get hearing cells to grow again," Professor Clark said.

In paraplegics it is hoped a bridge will grow between severed sections of the spine, with nerves regenerating and re-connecting through the plastic scaffold. "Last year, institute researchers used natural nerve-growth factors to prevent damaged nerve cells from degenerating, and induced them to grow again," Professor Clark said.

He also hoped the smart plastic would help the 60,000 epileptics in Australia who could not gain relief from drugs.

© The Australian