India's homegrown research industry seems to surge. Researchers say they are close to clinical trials for a low-cost cochlear implant, which could help thousands. In New Delhi, Murali Krishnan.
Researchers working on a low-cost cochlear implant in India expect to start clinical trials soon - and bring their "bionic ear" to market within the next year. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which has completed two year-long tests hopes the indigenously-designed implant will be ready for commercial production very soon.
They say the cochlear implant could drive down costs and benefit thousands of people suffering from significant hearing loss.
"In India, hearing disability is a major problem. We have nearly one million deaf people and they need this cochlear implant," says Bhujanga Rao, a senior scientist at India's DRDO. "Given the prohibitive costs many cannot afford [an imported cochlear implant] and this is what made me develop something indigenous, low-cost, and affordable."
As chief designer and principal investigator of the bionic ear project, Rao says the indigenous implant has been tested in several labs in the country.
Cheaper than imported
When it is commercially available, it will cost between 1,300 and 1,900 euros. Imported devices can cost anywhere up to 9,000 euros.
The bionic ear is an artificial hearing device, designed to produce hearing sensations by electrically stimulating nerves inside the inner ear.
It consists of a device implanted under the patient's skin - behind the ear - during an operation. It uses an external sound processor, which sits behind the ear and is worn externally, similar to a hearing aid.
The sound processor captures sounds and converts them into digital code. The sound processor transmits the digitally-coded sound through a coil to the implant just under the skin.
Dr Jitender Mohan Hans, who is also part of the team, says the low-cost implant will not compromise on quality. He describes it as a stripped-back version of the most expensive implants on the market.
"This is all sound technology. If the quality and clarity of sound production is good, obviously the cost of the implant is high," says Dr Hans.
But he says "in this implant there will only be eight channels as opposed to the 24 we have in the other systems."
The research is now set for clinical trials and 50 people have been selected to be part of the process. The trials will be conducted in several centers across the country.
More than 90 percent of the market for cochlear implants is cornered by three companies from Australia, Austria and the US. If these trials prove successful, India will join a select group of developers.
"If we do it, we would have done a great job and it will be a creditable achievement," says Dr Hans.
Rao, meanwhile, is thinking one step ahead and cannot wait for commercial production to begin.
"The process of production will not be a very difficult one. Once the clinical trials are over and we get positive results, I am very sure it will take one year and [then] we will be able to start commercial production," says Rao.
The first cochlear implant surgery was conducted in October 1982 in Australia. Since then, over 200,000 people of all ages have adopted the implant technology.