University researchers develop technology to better diagnose middle ear disease

By Caeli Clearly

A team of researchers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, ECE, have developed a new technological device that will enable physicians to look through the eardrum to better visualize middle ear disease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, middle ear disease, or an ear infection in the middle ear, is caused by bacteria or virus and while it is treatable, can be painful due to inflammation and build-up of ear fluids.

Stephen Boppart, professor in ECE, Bioengineering and Medicine explained that the researchers combined the quantitative pneumatic otoscope—a device that causes pressure in the ear to move the eardrum—and optical coherence technology, OCT, an optical imaging technique, to “precisely measure if the eardrum is moving as well as viewing the inner ear with micron imaging.”

Ryan Shelton, professor in ECE, said the device will allow researchers and physicians to see bacteria, fluid and biofilms in the middle ear that may or may not cause middle ear disease.

“The technology itself is basically analogous to ultrasound imaging except we’re using light,” he said.

Shelton said the technology currently being used is a magnifying glass and a penlight, or otoscope. The technology uses a harmless invisible light that is shone on the eardrum, he said. The light passes through the eardrum and reflects back, projecting a reflection that is used to create 3D images of the middle ear. This will provide physicians with the ability to make consistent diagnoses without additional costs.

“The idea is that we want to catch diseases early on, and the first place you want to do that is the primary doctor,” Boppart said. “Traditionally, that doctor doesn’t have advanced equipment, so we wanted to take more of our advanced imaging and bring that to the front line.”

In 2013, Boppart and Shelton founded the company PhotoniCare Inc. to provide physicians with better diagnostic tools developed out of the University. Boppart recently received the Illinois Proof of Concept, I-POC, award for the quantitative pneumatic otoscope. This award provides money and support to recipients to aid the development of innovative and marketable projects.

Boppart also said the University’s Research Park helped the pair start the company by developing the website, providing small grants and connecting the team with various investors.

“The University has helped most with commercializing this technique,” Boppart said. “Illinois Ventures helped by giving us initial funding as well.”

In July, PhotoniCare Inc. received a pilot grant from the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation, according to a news release from the company’s website. Shelton said the funds are going to be used to conduct a clinical study at a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C. and the technology should be ready for patients by November 2015.

According to Shelton, PhotoniCare Inc.’s main focus as of now is middle ear disease, but they have internal research and development looking at other applications, as well as research from Boppart’s academic lab at the University. Shelton said they expect a product to be on the market within the next 2 years.

“We’re providing a way that could reduce the time a child spends with a chronic infection by a number of months,” Shelton said. “That improves the child’s hearing, which improves the child’s ability to learn. It also saves a lot of money and reduces a lot of stress for parents.”

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