[ASC-media] Geelong man receives bionic ear mantle

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Sun Aug 6 07:36:40 CEST 2006

Professor Rob Shepherd has been appointed as Director to Australia's
Bionic Ear Institute, following in the footsteps of Professor Graeme
Clark, the inventor of the bionic ear.

His appointment follows a global search for the right person.
Portland-born, Geelong-education-the local man shone through.
More than 75,000 people around the world have gained the ability to
understand spoken language with the help of Australia's bionic ear. And
the device has captured 70% of the global market for cochlear implants.
Rob Shepherd's challenge is twofold. Firstly to lead the Institute in
creating a new generation of bionic ears that go further-restoring
hearing to a near-normal level. Secondly to apply all that's been learnt
with the bionic ear to future bionic devices that could repair spinal
injury, calm an epilepsy storm and more.

Rob Shepherd is a man who follows his passions. In the mid-70s that
meant taking the then-unusual step of convincing Deakin University to
let him mix biology, physiology and electron microscopy into his physics
degree. Now, using that background, he will be leading Melbourne's
multidisciplinary Bionic Ear Institute into the future.

"I am honoured to be presented with the opportunity to lead such a
prestigious organisation into new and exciting areas of medical bionics
while maintaining 
cutting edge hearing research into improving the bionic ear," says

His introduction to area, he says, "came out of left field." Under the
terms of a Victorian Government scholarship to university, he needed to
complete two years of industrial experience before going into teaching.
He saw an advertisement in the paper for someone to operate an electron
microscope to help with the development of a medical device, the
cochlear implant. Turning to his wife, he said, "They've written my job

After the two years were up, he went into teaching, and the bionic ear
research reached the stage where the first two implants were made. These
were so successful, that the Australian Government decided to invest in
the commercialisation of the device, and Shepherd started receiving
phone calls from Graeme Clark. "Come back, we need you." His job was
ensuring the long-term safety of the implants.

Today, Shepherd's research group is studying what happens at the
cellular level with the onset of deafness. The researchers have
uncovered several therapeutic compounds that can help preserve and
protect fragile auditory cells, and they are working at developing
technology for delivering these drugs in ways that can improve the
quality of hearing.

"We are developing new therapeutic techniques to deliver these drugs
into the inner ear to rescue auditory neurones using procedures that can
be used in association with cochlear implants or bionic ears."

Shepherd's group has also become interested in how flexible the brain
is-in particular, how the brain responds to, and copes with, the input
from a newly implanted hearing device. This mix of consolidating the
core area of interest of the cochlear implant with the cutting edge of
nerve cell research matches how Shepherd sees the future of the Bionic
Ear Institute.

"With more than 100,000 people implanted with cochlear devices, the
bionic ear is now a mature technology. But there is still much work to
do And if the Institute is to remain successful, it must expand into
other areas. So we will be applying our knowledge to develop other
medical bionic devices, such as the bionic eye. And we will also be
working with polymer chemists on how to release nerve growth factors in
a controlled manner. This has huge implications for helping, for
instance, to regrow the spinal cord or peripheral nerve following

Some of these projects-such as developing intelligent ways of releasing
antibacterial compounds from implants-will be ready to undergo clinical
trials within the next five years, Shepherd says. Others, such as the
bionic eye, may take 15 to 20 years.

In his spare time, Rob Shepherd reverts to the Geelong boy, he once was.
"I'm not very good, but I have a passion for surfing." He rides his bike
to work, when he can. And he goes bushwalking and occasionally
cross-country skiing.

For further information contact: Sandi Walters on  03 9667 7507,
swalters at bionicear.org and visit http://www.bionicear.org. A full cv is
available online. 


Niall Byrne

Science Communication Consultant
Science in Public
PO Box 199 Drysdale 3222 Australia
(185 Scotchmans Road Portarlington 3223) Ph +61 3 5253 1391, fax +61 3
9923 6008, mobile 0417 131 977 
niall at scienceinpublic.com or niallprivate at scienceinpublic.com for
personal matters

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