Full circle – Jo Williams again meets the man who started her journey in biofabrication

October 18, 2017
Sam Findlay

University of Wollongong Masters of Biofabrication student Joanne Williams was Monday night’s recipient of the 2017 Bill Wheeler Award. Read below to find out the inspiration that drew her to make such a life-changing decision to study with ACES.

I attended the first Bill Wheeler award event in 2009, with my 4 month old baby boy, Felix, strapped to my chest in a baby carrier. He was born profoundly deaf and we were here to see Prof Graeme Clark speak and hoped to meet him. This man who was responsible for the cochlear implants Felix was scheduled to receive in only a few weeks time, – these devices were our hope for his future. We bumped into Professor Clark again after the surgery and got to let him know about the success of the surgery and thank him in person. He was hanging out at the governor general’s house – this guy just pops up anywhere so I took it as a sign. I returned to ACES in 2011 to the Bill Wheeler event again to see Prof Clark. He didn’t really want to speak to Graeme – giving him the “I’m fine thanks” gesture. And I was once again inspired by the research going on here.


A seed was being sown.


I was then asked to speak at the Bill Wheeler event in 2014, as a community speaker – to talk about the impact that successful research has in the world at a very personal level. I spoke with the award recipient that year, about how fascinating the research here was and told her I’d love to do something like that. She asked me “well why don’t you?”


Once Felix started school, I decided I didn’t want to go back to my IT career. I wanted to make a difference. So I took some advice from Jim Patrick, met with Gordon Wallace, and applied for a Masters of Biofabrication – possibly as about the least typical masters student you could imagine, but with a sense of purpose and the passion to follow through. 3D printing promised so much and I hoped it could help improve cochlear implants in some way.  So I started to look at how it could help. After 6 years of habilitation with Felix, teaching him to listen and reading all the latest research and taking any advice from it that we could, I hoped for a similar or better outcome for all families with hearing impaired children.


One thing that stood out to me in my network of families, was watching them struggle with the decision to go ahead with the implant surgery. Research shows that the earlier the implant, the more likely a better outcome will be achieved.  One reason for the delay in deciding was the potential damage it could cause which could result in a loss of any natural hearing the child currently had. This natural hearing is important as it can be combined with the bionic hearing, providing a richer overall experience of sound than the implant alone, especially when listening to music or in noisy rooms. Giving up this hearing is a hard enough decision for an adult to make for themselves, but is so much harder when making it on behalf of a baby. It can be a paralysing.


So why does this damage occur? It is thought to be due to the body’s inflammatory response to the trauma of surgery, and to the foreign body response towards the implant.


So my project became focussed on how to minimise the potential loss of residual hearing, by reducing this inflammation in the cochlea.


A standard treatment option for dealing with inflammation in the body is the use of anti-inflammatory therapeutical drugs via an injection or tablet , but delivering the drugs systemically doesn’t aloe them to infiltrate the cochlea to the tissue inside where the inflammation is, as it is a bony on the outside. Or there would have to be such a high dose that they would cause serious side effects. One way to get the drugs inside the cochlea is via the implant itself. The electrode array which is inserted into the cochlea consists of electrodes and wires encased in silicone. My research is investigating ways to embed the anti-inflammatory drugs into the silicone utilising 3D fabrication techniques to produce a suitable implant-shaped structure. The drugs can then be released slowly over time, within the cochlea. I’m already 3D printing the drug loaded silicone at appropriate shapes and sizes. I’m exploring various architectures to determine what 3D printing can offer with regards to customisation, precision and control. 3D printing has the potential to impact drug release profiles (how much drug is released and for how long) whilst offering targeted drug deliver [specifying exactly where it can be delivered]. It can do this by changing the structure in terms of its shape, layers and porosity (holes), the amount of drugs embedded, and specifically where they are embedded. The 2nd stage of the research will involve the fabrication of a very fine outer layer on the silicone array, containing the same drug but at a higher concentration. This overall design will enable a high dose quick release of the anti-inflammatory drug to counter the surgical trauma inflammation, and then a lower dose slow release of the drug to counter the foreign body response inflammation over a longer period of time. This should reduce the overall inflammatory response within the cochlea, hopefully reducing the loss of residual hearing.


So here I am, full circle, on the receiving end of the Bill Wheeler award. I wouldn’t have thought it possible 8 years ago but I do believe I’m on the path to making a difference and am receiving this award from others who also want to help make that difference. This is an exciting place to be, the people and their support are amazing, the facilities are world class. With this award, I’d like to travel to the new Graeme Clark Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. There, research is progressing in drug delivery devices, 3D printing and personalised Implants . There is a real focus on clinical solutions. I’d like to build collaborative research links and investigate further detail in these areas to help better understand how they  can be brought together to provide a vision for innovation in the next generation of  cochlear implant development. I hope I get to be involved with Cochlear and the innovations that can take the bionic ear forward.  So a big thankyou to Lexie and the community for their ongoing support of such endeavours, Graeme for his vision and inspiration, my supervisors Gordon, Zhilian and Michael, and the UOW and ACES for giving me this opportunity.


In my spare time, I’m also working intensely with the next generation of young scientists. Felix and Amelie have already started their internships here, 3D printing, designing in CAD, freeform designing and creating robots.  Our only problem is we only have 1 3D printer for all of us to share at home so we need lab access for them ASAP.

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