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Aug 15

Sandpit event identifies potential multidisciplinary solutions to tackle challenges for hearing loss

The UCL Flagship programme Hear Again: to recapture what has been lost in the ear held its Sandpit event “Towards Restoration of Hearing: Using Engineering to Advance Medicine” at the UCL Ear Institute.

  • The day took place on Wednesday 26th July 2017 in collaboration with the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital and with sponsorship support from Sebastien Ourselin, Anne Schilder, Nigel Titchener-Hooker and Jonathan Gale. It began with an introduction from flagship lead Ivan Wall, followed by an overview of the clinical context by Professor Shakeel Saeed to identify and prioritise some of the critical clinical challenges for hearing loss. Hearing loss affects around 1 in 6 people in the UK, representing a significant proportion of the population who could benefit from advanced treatment and therapies. The causes of hearing loss range from congenital birth defects to degeneration due to ageing and its associated functional decline. Treatment has a potentially huge impact. For instance, research has shown that children born with hearing problems who receive treatment make gains in long term outcomes, speech and language skills. Considerable advancements have been made to the extent that hearing implants are now able to offer partial restoration of hearing. However there are still plenty of challenges to overcome.

    Some of the clinical challenges identified at the sandpit included implantation failure of hearing devices due to tissue fibrosis, limitations in current surgical techniques which can lead to tissue abrasion and inflammation causing further damage to residual hearing and the need for more personalised implantation otology.

  • Discussion then moved on to identify some emerging research themes that were in line with the Flagship Programme’s underlying vision to restore or replace hearing in patients. These included the regeneration of hair cells, smart coatings for implants, improvements to electrode arrays, implant sensing devices, screening assays for drug discovery, and surgical tools like robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence and medical image computing. After identifying the themes, Sandpit participants were encouraged to move around the room discussing them with one another in assigned areas and exploring possible solutions to address each theme’s needs. This session was led by Laura Fenner (BEAMS research facilitator).

    The participants then split into groups to develop their projects around these themes, coming together at the end to make ‘Dragons Den’ style pitches. The goal of this exercise was to identify collaborative project ideas that could be developed for submission to grant funding bodies for substantial funding. Whilst all the projects were strong, the winning idea was especially praised for its extremely multidisciplinary nature.

    The winning project was geared towards creating an impedance-based sensor system for assessing fibrosis around cochlear implants, which was one of the clinical challenges identified at the start of the Sandpit session. The winning team, Xiao Liu (Electrical Engineering) and Patricia Esteban (Biomedical Engineering), hope to use in vitro cellular models of fibrosis to develop the system. All participants will receive integrated support throughout the process of project and grant development from BEAMS funding office, Translation Research Office (TRO) and staff from the Institute of Healthcare Engineering.

  • Rahima Begum, Research and Development Manager for HealthEng, commented, “The Hear Again Sandpit event was successful as it helped establish new collaborations. I am looking forward to supporting all teams throughout their development and I am interested to see how their progress draws on multidisciplinary strengths from both engineering and clinical fields”.

    If you would like to register interest to be involved in the next Hear Again Sandpit event, please contact Engineering lead Ivan Wall (