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Wyss Institute researchers receive back-to-back MassChallenge and Mass Innovation Nights awards

The awards recognized a new materials science approach toward ear implants that prevent clogging, infection, and unwanted early extrusion in patients with persistent ear infections

By Benjamin Boettner

(BOSTON) — A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) won the Golden Prize Award at the MassChallenge and the Audience Choice Grand Prize at the Mass Innovation Nights 115 competitions.

The not-for-profit MassChallenge was founded in 2010 after the 2008 global recession with the vision of a creative, inspired society in which everyone is empowered and has the resources to maximize their impact. It strives to create a world-wide movement to support entrepreneurship with the potential to launch and grow new ventures, using its proven no-strings-attached model and global reach.

Wyss Institute materials scientists Joanna Aizenberg (left in the front), Ida Pavlichenko (middle in the front), and Michael Kreder are photographed with Omri Baumer (second from the right) and Stuart Paap (right), two of the MassChallenge organizers, after they received the Golden Prize Award. Credit: MassChallenge.

An expert group of judges, including investors, healthcare professionals, and CEOs of large pharma companies selected the Wyss team’s concept to receive the $50,000 Gold Prize Award, to help launch a new type of eardrum implant. Current ear tubes implanted into the ears of patients with chronic ear infections fail in about 40% of cases, resulting in hearing loss, pain, and repeated surgical procedures. The team developed ‘next-generation tympanostomy tubes’ that are inspired by liquid-infused surfaces found in nature to fend off bacteria that otherwise would cause biofouling. Used as coatings for tubes with optimized geometries and draining functions for liquids building up in infected ears, this integrated approach is designed to also deliver drugs efficiently and directly to the middle ear, while preventing the ear tubes from clogging and allowing them to resist early extrusion from the eardrum, which are frequent problems with conventional ear tubes and a reason for repeated surgeries.

Led by Wyss Institute Technology Development Fellow Ida Pavlichenko, Ph.D., and Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Joanna Aizenberg, Ph.D., the approach is being developed for commercialization in a concerted effort between the Wyss Institute and the Harvard innovation Labs, and could revolutionize the treatment of ear infections. In the future, it could also be extended to other ear and hearing disorders, including hearing loss and balance dysfunctions, and medical applications beyond otolaryngology.

Previously, in May 2018 the team had already been awarded the Grand Prize in the Health & Life Sciences Track at the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge. Aizenberg, who also is the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science and Professor of Chemistry & Chemical Biology at SEAS is widely recognized as a leading researcher in the field of biomimetic inorganic materials with numerous contributions that have led to new concepts for designing materials with new abilities and real-world applications. As an Advanced Materials Hall of Fame laureate she recently reviewed her work on liquid-infused surfaces for medical applications in Advanced Materials that also inspired the development of the team’s next generation tympanostomy tubes as a new weapon against ear infections.

In another venue held at District Hall Boston on October 15th, Pavlichenko also presented the team’s concept at the Mass Innovation Nights 115’s 5th Annual Female Founders Event, where the project received the Audience Choice Grand Prize. The attendees of the event actively voted for the project and its promotion through multiple media and social media channels. Mass Innovation Nights are dedicated to helping local entrepreneurs by increasing visibility of their products and connecting them to the local innovation community. Started in 2009 and held once a month, ten entrepreneurs present their products to a group of experts in a “stone soup” event, reminiscent of the folk story in which hungry travelers create a fire, hang a pot of water and tell the at first reluctant local villagers that they are cooking up a “stone soup”, which would taste better with additional flavorings. Soon everyone in the village contributed “just a little something” and join the now flavorful meal. Similarly, Mass Innovation Nights are held at places provided by local companies and attended by industry and social media experts who donate a few hours of their time and expertise to hone in on and promote promising products.

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