May 2017 newswire; indiana university

Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have successfully developed a method to grow inner ear tissue from human stem cells—a finding that could lead to new platforms to model disease and new therapies for the treatment of hearing and balance disorders. “The inner ear is one of few organs with which biopsy is not performed and because of this, human inner ear tissues are scarce for research purposes,” said Eri Hashino, PhD, Professor of Otolaryngology at IU School of Medicine. “Dish-grown human inner ear tissues offer unprecedented opportunities to develop and test new therapies for various inner ear disorders.” The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, was led by Karl R. Koehler, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery at IU School of Medicine, and Dr. Hashino in collaboration with Jeffrey Holt, PhD, professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. The research builds on the team’s previous work with a technique called three-dimensional culture, which involves incubating stem cells in a floating ball-shaped aggregate, unlike traditional cell culture in which cells grow in a flat layer on the surface of a culture dish. This allows for more complex interactions between cells, and creates an environment that is closer to what occurs in the body during development. 

Inner ear organoidHuman inner ear organoid with sensory hair cells (cyan) and sensory neurons (yellow). An antibody for the protein CTBP2 reveals cell nuclei as well as synapses between hair cells and neurons (magenta).

By culturing human stem cells in this manner and treating them with specific signaling molecules, the investigators were able to guide cells through key processes involved in the development of the human inner ear. This resulted in what the scientists have termed inner ear “organoids,” or three-dimensional structures containing sensory cells and supporting cells found in the inner ear.

“This is essentially a recipe for how to make human inner ears from stem cells, said Dr. Koehler, after tweaking our recipe for about a year, we were shocked to discover that we could make multiple inner ear organoids in each pea-sized cell aggregate.” The researchers used CRISPR gene editing technology to engineer stem cells that produced fluorescently labeled inner ear sensory cells. Targeting the labeled cells for analysis, they revealed that their organoids contained a population of sensory cells that have the same functional signature as cells that detect gravity and motion in the human inner ear. “We also found neurons, like those that transmit signals from the ear to the brain, forming connections with sensory cells,” Dr. Koehler said. “This is an exciting feature of these organoids because both cell types are critical for proper hearing and balance.”

Dr. Hashino said these findings are “a real game changer, because up until now, potential drugs or therapies have been tested on animal cells, which often behave differently from human cells.” The researchers are currently using the human inner ear organoids to study how genes known to cause deafness interrupt normal development of the inner ear and plan to start the first-ever drug screening using human inner ear organoids. “We hope to discover new drugs capable of helping regenerate the sound-sending hair cells in the inner ear of those who have severe hearing problems,” Dr. Hashino said.


April 2017

Being born totally deaf hasn't stopped a young Auckland man from graduating with a Master's degree in clinical exercise physiology. Josh Foreman, 25, was the youngest person in New Zealand to receive a cochlear implant when he was two and a half years old. His adoptive parents, millionaires Bill and Diane Foreman, realised that he wasn't responding to sounds such as doorbells and barking dogs. "So my dad took it upon himself to test me. He got two pots and stood over my cot while I was asleep and started banging them together, and I didn't wake up," he said. More scientific tests followed, and confirmed that Foreman was profoundly deaf in both ears. "Even if I stand beside a 747 jumbo jet I can't hear a thing," he said. Doctors offered his parents a choice of sign language or what was then the new idea of a cochlear implant. "The very first model I had was so big that I had to wear it on my back like a back-pack and a wire would come off it and attach to my ear.”   

But he is grateful that his parents chose to get him an implant, even though some deaf activists believe implants undermine the value of deaf culture. "People are entitled to their own choice, but me, personally, I would say you should definitely get a cochlear implant because it will open new opportunities," he said.

 Josh Foreman, Helen Clark, Liz FairgrayJosh ForemanDiane ForemanTop left: Josh Foreman's adoptive mother, Diane Foreman, was NZ Entrepreneur of the year in 2009; Top right: Josh aged 10, using his cochlear implant to talk by phone to another boy born deaf in Australia;  Bottom: Josh aged 9, with his speech therapist Liz Fairgray (centre) and then Prime Minister Helen Clark at the opening of the Hearing House preschool in December 2000.

It wasn't easy. It took him eight years to learn to speak properly, and he still needs to lip-read as well to make sure he understands people. He needed full-time teacher aides throughout his schooling at King's School and then King's College. But in his first year at university he realised that he no longer needed the reader/writer assistant that he was given, and started taking his own notes. "I always placed myself at the front of the class so I could hear the lecturer, and if I didn't catch something I'd ask them to repeat it or I'd check with my classmates," he said.

He completed a Bachelor of Physical Education in 2014. He loved sports and never let the cochlear implant become a barrier. "I played rugby. I had custom-made headgear with more padding on one side [to protect the implant], and I played on the wing," he said. He must take the device off his ear when he swims, but didn't let that stop him working as a swimming teacher.

"In the preschool pool I would sometimes leave it in because it was not too deep. For the older kids I'd take it out. I did all the talking and the kids did all the listening, hopefully they didn't need to ask questions.”

Josh Foreman  Josh Foreman with his latest cochlear implant

He also mentors teenagers with cochlear implants through the Hearing House charity, which his parents helped to fund. "Sometimes they ask questions like, 'Will I ever get a job?' or 'Will I ever get a girlfriend?' " he said. "I answer: 'Yes of course you will, you just have to work hard to get what you want. Just because you have got that cochlear implant doesn't mean you can't do anything.' "


May 2017 Market Watch

With computers, science and medicine making advancements every day, combining electronics with the human mind may be the next big step. Already, Facebook is developing a neural interface that would enable you to control their software with your mind, while Elon Musk is preaching about transcending the limitations of human body by merging with the machines to ensure the survival and relevance of humans as species. To explore the possibilities of human-machine interfaces of the future, Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus in neurophysiology and co-inventor of the cochlear implant, was interviewed.  He is now a co-founder and chief scientific officer at Posit Science, which provides brain fitness software and services through its BRAINHQ platform. The really fascinating thing about the cochlear implant is that it relies on brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change chemically, structurally and functionally in response to sensory and other input. Because of that, Merzenich and many others could connect the implant to just a few of 3,000 possible connection points in the patient’s cochlea, and the brain adapted, filling in the missing information and providing a better sound quality for the patient.

Elon MuskBrain light Q: From cyberpunk novels to modern medicine, humans have always wanted to interface with machines in new and revolutionary ways. What is the current state of neural implants and human-computer neural interfaces, and how they can help us be better, faster and stronger?

A: This is a field where we could see rapid advances, both in translating the real world to our brains, as we did in the cochlear implant, and in translating our thoughts into action in the real world, as Facebook proposes to do with neural caps that “read” our thoughts. Notable works in this area include Brainport, developed by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita to restore vision to the blind; Braingate, developed by scientists at Brown to direct a robot arm using thought; and projects being explored by the Department of Defense to use imaging technology to better read people under interrogation.

Q: How do you see neural and other implants evolve during the next 20 years?

A: What we learned from the invention of the cochlear implant — basically the first implantable neural translation device — is that the brain will re-organise in response to input from the neural implant. As a result, we should conceptualise the role of that brain plasticity at the same time as we are designing new types of neural implants, because they will work hand in hand.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for medicine, science and technology concerning the development of the neural interfaces and implants in general that we’re facing today?

A: These technologies are actually well within reach. Ever-advancing forms of brain imaging have been used in academic settings for years, and scientists developed versions of ways to interpret senses without the primary biological mechanism for those senses over 30 years ago. The real challenge is making this science practical: How can a brain be trained to learn how to control these new devices?

Q: Elon Musk claims humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant in the age of artificial intelligence. He’s acquired Neuralink, a company that develops the neural interface-related technology, to accomplish this goal and create a direct link between brain and the computer. Is this the direction in which you feel humanity should be going, or are we losing what makes us human by attaching ourselves to these devices?

A: We’re already merging with machines. We’re just using our eyes and ears to get the information directly from our phones. Already many people store a chunk of their memory — contact information, maps — in their “exocortex,” a cloud-linked phone that stores memory for them, and transmits information to their brain through high-resolution screens and naturalistic speech synthesis. I doubt we need a direct neural connection when our eyes and ears already offer such high-bandwidth and high-fidelity pathways straight to our brains. Every new form of communication, from writing to the telephone to the web, changes human culture and human brains. An important question is what impact will using these new devices have on our brains — and what it means to be human. Many people would now say that reading and writing is an essential form of our humanity, but those abilities are actually rather recent developments in human history. Technological advances can usually be used either for good or bad purposes; however, history shows we generally use them to improve the human condition. To me, that is the moral purpose of science.

Q: How does Facebook plan to “read our mind”?

A: It appears that Facebook is exploring cutting-edge imaging technology to measure brain activity in ways that don’t require a hole in your head. They want to see what patterns of brain activity are correlated with what thoughts or actions. The idea is that when they see a specific pattern of brain activity they know is associated with the idea “open Facebook on my phone,” for example, your phone will open Facebook without you having to click on the icon. Research scientists are already doing this in academic settings; scientists recently showed that they could identify what image a person was looking at by observing the patterns of their brain activity - which is getting pretty close to mind-reading! The big challenge will be getting a useful level of accuracy in the real world, so that when you think “open Facebook on my phone” it doesn’t open an e-book with the word Face in the title. Anyone who has used speech recognition on a phone knows what I mean.

Q: Can neuroimaging caps be used to read our innermost thoughts? Are there any privacy concerns once human-machine interfaces get perfected?

A: Probably not our “innermost” thoughts at this point, but we already have the ability, in a limited way, to build machines that can be controlled by thoughts. This technology will continue to improve. It is really not as science fiction as it seems to expect that machines can read your brain in a manner that produces useful information. And, yes, of course, privacy is a concern, just as it has been since the invention of the lie detector. With our lives increasingly discoverable online, there are likely more immediate privacy concerns than this still-theoretical one, but how we use new technology and its ripple effects are important issues.

Q: We can enhance our brains not only through external braintech, but also through generation of new neural pathways — learning and training. Tell us a bit about how your BRAINHQ platform works and how it is different from the plethora of other quiz apps that are out there right now.

A: Posit Science offers plasticity-based brain exercises to the public through and through free BrainHQ iOS apps. Currently, the BrainHQ platform hosts 29 exercises targeted at most major brain systems. What makes BrainHQ unique is the science behind it. A recent study found most brain training products have zero peer-reviewed articles showing that they work. At the other end of the spectrum, BrainHQ exercises and assessments have shown benefits in more than 140 peer-reviewed science and medical journal articles. Exercises in BrainHQ have been shown to improve standard measures of cognition (e.g., speed, attention, memory) with benefits that transfer to many real world activities (e.g., balance, driving, everyday tasks) and quality of life (e.g, mood, confidence, self-rated health).

May 2017  Herald Sun Melbourne

Veteran medical industry leader and ex-Cochlear chief Chris Roberts has been appointed chairman of implant maker OncoSil in a major coup for the biotech minnow. Dr Roberts, who led bionic ear manufacturer Cochlear — now a $8 billion titan — for more than a decade until August 2015 assumed the chairmanship at $54 million OncoSil early May. He has served on the board as a non-executive director since January last year. 

Chris RobertsHis appointment comes as OncoSil draws closer to commercialising its lead product, a tumour implant designed to deliver a more intense dose of radiation to cancer sufferers than external beam treatment.

Having already returned promising results in studies for safety and efficacy, the implant — designed to be inserted into solid tumours — is being put through its paces in a global pancreatic cancer study, with a Melbourne patient in late March the first to be recruited to the trial. European and US regulators will watch the results closely before deciding whether to clear the product for sale. At present, pancreatic cancer sufferers have a five-year survival rate of about one in 20 once diagnosed, the World Cancer Research Fund says. 

Adding an Order of Australia commendation this year to a string of accolades, Dr Roberts brings more than 40 years of medical innovation experience to the OncoSil role. He has history in the field, having been chairman of listed liver cancer treatment specialist Sirtex from 2002-02.

“OncoSil’s innovative technology ... has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people with cancer,” Dr Roberts said. “There have been several rewarding developments in recent months with the progression of the global pancreatic study programme and I look forward to extending my involvement in the company’s overall direction.”