Students Design a New Ear Tube


Ear infections are the most common reason for kids to visit a doctor—about half all infants suffer from at least one ear infection by the time they turn one year old. Ear infections are not only painful but can lead to hearing loss and other complications. So implanting tympanostomy tubes to treat hearing loss and chronic ear infections has become the most common pediatric surgery—more than 700,000 children in the United States receive them.

But these tubes can come with many complications. They can get clogged with cellular debris, can come out too soon, or stay in too long—all of which may lead to additional surgeries.

Now a company called PionEar has a superior tube that, thanks to its geometry and material makeup, prevents biofouling, allows for drug delivery, and is smaller to boot. The project started with a collaboration between doctoral students at Harvard. One of them, Ida Pavlichenko, has decided to do everything she can to make the product a reality. 

Her drive is born of first-hand experience. “After maternity leave, my daughter went to daycare,” Pavlichenko said. “Unfortunately, she was one of the patients that had recurrent acute ear infections. I got so immersed in the problem—in the clinical need in this space—that it became my personal journey.”

Pavlichenko was doing research in the Aizenberg Biomineralizaiton and Biomimetics lab. She used her materials science knowledge from working there to create PionEar. “The major novelty and advantage of our device is the different material design,” Pavlichenko said. “We have a very nonadhesive, non-sticky surface that allows for the suppression of bio-contamination on the surface.”

By keeping pus, blood, wax, cells, and cell debris out of the tube, fluids are free to flow out of the ear and the complications associated with conventional tubes disappear.

The smaller size of the tubes reduces the amount of scar tissue, which can cause hearing loss. “As surprising as it sounds, we can have the same performance of conventional tubes with a 50 percent smaller diameter,” Pavlichenko said.

But PionEar is not merely meant to fix the problems of the now decades old technology. “We also changed the shape of the conduit, so it allows for better and more selective flow,” Pavlichenko said. That means that doctors will be able to deliver drugs to the eardrum through the same tube. The tubes will also be customizable to meet the specific needs of each patient.

The new tubes have already proved effective and safe in chinchillas, who happen to have an ear structure similar to our own. The next step is to raise the funding to test them in humans—as time sapping an effort as any of the research. “I wish I could have my clone to help me out,” Pavlichenko said.

Even without the clone, Pavlichenko is confident she’ll get there. “It’s a great time for women to be in this field,” she said. “I’ve never heard so much about women in startups as I do now. I think that being a woman is very advantageous, considering how many venture groups are focusing on female led or founded companies.”

But, ultimately, it’s the end result that keeps her going. “What can be more exciting than working with your own invention and making it a product that will be used by hospitals and doctors?”

Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.

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