NEW YORK—Three pioneering scientists who led the way to developing the cochlear implant received the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award at ceremonies held here on September 20. The 2013 honorees are Graeme M. Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair, and Blake S. Wilson, whose work contributed so much to enabling profoundly deaf people to hear.
In announcing the award winners, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation stated, “Brilliance and relentless commitment have fueled the reverberating success of Clark, Hochmair, and Wilson. Less than a generation ago, deaf individuals had no hope of hearing again. Through their vision, persistence, and innovation, [they] created an apparatus that has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Their work has, for the first time, substantially restored a human sense with a medical intervention.”
Graeme Clark, MD, an Australian otolaryngologist, played a key role in the research and development of the Bionic Ear, a multiple-channel cochlear implant. The early experiments he conducted helped guide the design of a device, which was later developed industrially by Cochlear Limited, which has been the world’s largest manufacturer of cochlear implants for the past 25 years.
Clark, the Foundation Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne from 1970 to 2004, was named one of the first Laureate Professors at the university for his international recognition of scientific achievement.
Ingeborg Hochmair, PhD, an electrical engineer, also made early contributions to the field of cochlear implants, starting with the development of the world’s first multi-channel microelectronic cochlear implant, implanted in Vienna in 1977. She founded her own company, MED-EL, in Innsbruck, Austria, to help take the device from the lab to the market. She remains CEO of MED-EL.
Blake Wilson, DSc, co-director of the Duke Hearing Center, helped develop speech-encoding technology for cochlear implants that vastly reduces distortion. Wilson also is an adjunct professor in three departments at Duke: surgery, biomedical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering.
Clark, Hochmair, Wilson had to overcome enormous technical challenges and frequent disapproval from their scientific peers to achieve their goals. Writing about them in the New England Journal of Medicine, Gerard O’Donoghue of the National Institute for Health Research in England, said, “These three scientists had the grit to pick ‘impossible’ projects and the courage to remain steadfast in the face of failure and criticism. Above all, they remained incurably passionate about achieving victory over one of humanity’s most prevalent disabilities.”
O’Donoghue added, “Though they fully deserve the Lasker Award, their greatest accolade is the gratitude of 300,000 implant recipients around the world to whom they’ve given the gift of hearing.”
The Lasker Awards are among the most respected science prizes in the world. Since 1945, they have recognized the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of human disease. Eighty-three Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize, including 31 in the last two decades.
The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award recognizes investigators whose contributions have improved the clinical treatment of patients.