From severe earache to hearing problems: The tiny sponge that can heal a burst eardrum
02:57 GMT, 22 May 2012
A tiny sponge that sits inside the ear could be a radical new treatment for perforated eardrums.
The sponge is coated with special proteins, called fibroblast growth factors, which stimulate the body’s natural healing process, so that the hole in the eardrum can close up.
The eardrum is a round membrane covered by a thicker protective layer of skin tissue that vibrates as sound waves make contact with it.
According to some estimates, up to one in 20 people will suffer a perforated eardrum at some point in their lives
It is a delicate structure and can become torn, or perforated, usually due to an infection.
This occurs when fluid builds up in the ear, causing the pressure to increase to an extent that the eardrum is split.
According to some estimates, up to one in 20 people will suffer a perforated eardrum at some point in their lives.
It can cause severe earache and temporarily affect hearing.
The extent of any hearing loss depends on the size of the hole.
A small puncture may only cause very slight loss, but bigger tears can mean severe hearing problems, for as long as the eardrum is damaged.
Other causes include damage from instruments used to clear wax, such as cotton buds, or very loud noises, such as gunfire or explosion.
Most perforations heal themselves in a few weeks and hearing returns to normal.
But in a small number of cases surgery is needed, which involves giving a general anaesthetic and grafting a piece of skin, usually taken from another part of the ear, over the hole.
The procedure is almost always successful, but can take up to an hour-and-a-half and usually means a week or two off work for the patient.
The new therapy, however, rules out the need for surgery by harnessing the body’s own healing powers to do the job instead.
The eardrum is a round membrane covered by a thicker protective layer of skin tissue that vibrates as sound waves make contact with it
The sponge, which is about half a centimetre in diameter, is soaked in a liquid containing fibroblast growth factors, which are produced by the body to aid healing.
After being bathed in the liquid for ten minutes, it is inserted into the ear in a painless procedure that takes just five minutes, and does not require an anaesthetic.
Over the following few hours, the healing liquid seeps out and is absorbed into the damaged tissue, where it speeds up the manufacture of new cells that can repair the tear.
Once the sponge has been inserted, it is kept in place with a layer of fibrin glue — a special sealant often used in surgery to help close wounds.
As the sponge is made from gelatin, the soluble substance produced from animal tissue and bones, it gradually dissolves over a period of two to three months and is absorbed harmlessly into the body.
A team of Japanese scientists from Kyoto University and Kitano Hospital in Osaka, recruited 63 patients who had suffered serious perforations.
They treated 53 with the sponge method and the remaining ten were left to see if the holes repaired themselves.
The results, published in the journal Otology And Neurotology, showed that in 52 of the 53 sponge patients the eardrums completely healed within a few weeks. In the other group, there was little or no improvement.
In a report on their findings, the researchers said there was a substantial improvement in hearing.
‘One of the remarkable aspects of the novel regenerative treatment is that patients are able to notice significant improvements in hearing levels immediately after the procedure,’ they said.
‘In fact, ten out of 12 patients who wore a hearing aid before treatment no longer required its use afterwards.’
Professor Tony Narula, a consultant ear, nose and throat specialist and spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the sponge therapy was ‘fascinating’.
But he stressed that patients would only need it in severe cases.
‘Although most ear, nose and throat surgeons will probably do a couple of operations a month for this kind of problem, more than 90 per cent of perforated eardrums heal themselves within a few weeks.
‘I treated some victims of the London bombings in 2005 whose ear drums were blasted by the explosion at Edgware Road station and even most of those healed on their own.’
‘However, this is an exciting development and the science behind it is fascinating.’