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Hear, hear! Top honour for bionic medicine pioneer

PROFESSOR Graeme Clark, the man whose research has delivered hearing to 250,000 people across more than 100 countries, was last night awarded the country's top prize for biomedical research.

PROFESSOR Graeme Clark, the man whose research has delivered hearing to 250,000 people across more than 100 countries, was last night awarded the country's top prize for biomedical research.

Professor Clark, who invented and championed the bionic ear, received the $50,000 CSL Florey Medal at a ceremony in Canberra.

But far from using the gong as a chance to reflect on a pioneering career spanning decades, the 76-year-old yesterday revealed he would head a new research project to dramatically improve the bionic ear at NICTA the ICT research centre based at Melbourne University.

As Professor Clark continues his work, the words of his friend and patient Rod Saunders will be ringing in his ears.

Mr Saunders, the first patient to undergo the multichannel cochlear implant operation at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in 1978, told Professor Clark that the device was wonderful for speech but listening to music was "shocking".

"It's like the difference between hearing a musical instrument underwater and the clear sounds that we enjoy with good hearing," Professor Clark said. "It wasn't nice melodic sounds, they were harsh."

Herein lies Professor Clark's next challenge. And while Mr Saunders, who died in 2007, won't be a beneficiary of the next-generation bionic ear, he will play a central role in its development.

After receiving the gift of sound, he reciprocated by bequeathing his body to science. Included in his donation was precious brain and ear tissue samples, which will help Professor Clark and other researchers in their quest to create high-fidelity bionic ear implants to ensure that listening to music is no longer shocking, but also improving hearing in noisy environments.

Key to creating the next generation of hi-fi implants is understanding how the bionic ear and brain interact.

"It's like we have a partial connection with the brain now and we need to get closer and that's my personal goal," Professor Clark said.

While others of his generation enjoy retirement, Professor Clark who maintains he is not "genetically engineered to wind down" is gearing up to marry the plethora of psychophysical data from Mr Saunders with the best modern technology can offer, including super computers and micro CT scans.

"There are so many different improvements in technology that are available now that wouldn't have been available then," Professor Clark said.

Awarded biennially, past winners of the Florey Medal include Nobel laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for discovering that bacteria causes stomach ulcers and Ian Frazer, who developed the vaccine for cervical cancer.


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