WASHINGTON, DC–Five scientists whose contributions led to the invention of the cochlear implant, which has provided hearing to hundreds of thousands of deaf people, will receive the 2015 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, awarded biennially by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
The honorees–Graeme M. Clark, MD, PhD; Michael M. Merzenich, PhD; Erwin Hochmair, D.Tech; Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer, PhD; and Blake S. Wilson, PhD—will receive the $500,000 biennial prize, which recognizes bioengineering achievements that significantly improves the human condition. The awards will be presented at a February 24 dinner in the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC.
In NAE’s announcement of the awards, C.D. Mote Jr., president of the academy, said, “This year’s Russ Prize recipients personify how engineering transforms the health and happiness of people across the globe. The creators of the cochlear implant have improved remarkably the lives of people everywhere who are hearing impaired.”
According to NAE, more than 320,000 people have received cochlear implants in one or both ears, making it the most-used neural prosthesis yet developed.
ABOUT THE WINNERS
The five honorees whose collective efforts played so great a role in the invention of the cochlear implant (CI) did their work in locations around the world.
Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist and professor of otolaryngology at the University of California at San Francisco, helped lay the groundwork for CI designs in the early 1970s. Merzenich’s discoveries in multisite stimulation of CIs and neuroplasticity helped paved the way for the development of the Advanced Bionics cochlear prosthesis, which allowed greater access to and commercialization of CIs.
Erwin Hochmair and Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer, two electrical engineers who teamed up both in marriage and professionally at the Technical University of Vienna, started doing research on CI technology in the mid-1970s. They created the first microelectronic multichannel CI, a prototype of modern CIs. Their device was first implanted in December 1977. Later, the Hochmairs founded MED-EL, in Innsbruck, Austria, which is now one of the three largest CI manufacturers in the world, and Ingeborg continues to serve as CEO of the company.
Blake S. Wilson, another of the Russ Award recipients, also contributed to the development of the MED-EL technology. Wilson, who is an adjunct professor at Duke University in surgery, biomedical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering, as well as co-director of the Duke Hearing Center, began working on CIs full-time in the 1980s. He developed the “continuous interleaved sampling” system, which improved CI users’ understanding of words and sentences. He is an advisor to MED-EL and director of its US-based research laboratory in Durham, NC.
Meanwhile, during the 1970s, Graeme Clark, an Australian otolaryngologist, began independently studying a method of stimulating the cochlea to direct particular speech sounds to different parts of the cochlea. His design of the Nucleus, the first multichannel cochlear implant, was completed in 1978 and implanted into a patient. Clark helped found Cochlear Limited, the largest CI company, which has provided implants to more than 250,000 patients over the last 30 years. He is also a laureate professor emeritus of otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne.
The Russ Award dinner will not be the first time that pioneers in the cochlear implant field have been honored together. In September 2013, Graeme Clark, Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer, and Blake Wilson shared the prestigious Lasker-Debakey Medical Research Award.
THE RUSS PRIZE
The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) established the Russ Prize in 1999 at the request of Ohio University. The prize was made possible by a multimillion-dollar gift to Ohio University from Fritz Russ and his wife, Dolores. Fritz was a 1942 graduate of the university and a prominent engineer. The Russes co-founded Systems Research Laboratories.
The National Academy of Engineering is a private, independent, non-profit institution founded in 1964. Its mission is to advance the well being of the nation by promoting the engineering profession and by encouraging engineers to provide service to the federal government.