European funding for innovative research at Ghent University that detects and treats hearing loss

(23-03-2022) With a Transition Grant from the European Innovation Council (EIC), Ghent University Professor Sarah Verhulst and her team hope to bring a new type of hearing diagnostics and treatment closer to the patient and market.

Six years ago, Ghent University researcher Sarah Verhulst received an ERC Starting Grant. With this grant she investigated how auditory computer models and artificial intelligence can be used to detect the first signs of hearing damage and in hearing-aid algorithm development. This year Sarah received an EIC Transition Grant, with which she hopes to bring this innovation to the market in the form of more sensitive hearing tests and audio-processors for hearing aids and hearables.

Identifying hearing loss earlier and treating it better

In people with cochlear synaptopathy (CS), the auditory nerve works less well because of ageing, noise-exposure or certain medication that affects the synapses of the hair cells in the inner ear. CS was only discovered in 2009 and standard hearing tests such as the audiogram cannot detect it.

With her research, Sarah's lab aspires two goals: develop a sensitive diagnostic test for CS, and treat CS with innovative hearing technologies. To detect CS non-invasively, they use a new patented test that quantifies CS and the integrity of the auditory nerve through auditory EEG. With this test, hearing damage can be diagnosed about 10 years earlier than with the standard clinical audiogram. The data from this test can be processed via auditory computer models and artificial neural networks to offer a personalized treatment to people with CS. In the future, this new type of neural networks will be embedded in the processors of hearing aids and hearables.

  • Read the article in Nature here

From lab to  market

Bringing a product to the market requires a great deal of investment. Think of a good business plan or product-specific improvements, such as a convenient user interface or robust hardware. In addition, clinical studies with patients and future users are planned, so that the CE mark - which is necessary to bring a medical product to the market - can be obtained. To make these steps successful, Sarah Verhulst and her team work together with UGent Tech Transfer and with clinical partners such as Ghent University Hospital.

"It is difficult to bring basic research closer to people. We are honored that our research is getting this trust from the EU and that it gives us the opportunity to realize our goal, together with Ghent University Hospital and our other partners," says Sarah Verhulst.

Sarah Verhulst's project, 'EarDiTech' (Precision Hearing Diagnostics and Augmented Hearing Technologies), has now raised 2.5 million euros through an EIC Transition Grant. The Transition Grant is a new and unique European funding mechanism that focuses on scaling up and marketing projects that already achieved promising results. The EIC issued this Transition Call for the first time, and 'EarDiTech' is therefore the first EIC Transition Project at Ghent University.

Sarah Verhulst's trajectory demonstrates how bottom-up research can lead to innovative products that benefit us. It all started in 2016; when Sarah secured an ERC Starting Grant at Ghent University, with which she set up a new research line and lab around hearing technologies. During this past period, she developed a hearing test for CS and through an ERC 'Proof of Concept Grant' she further refined this test within the Ghent Auditory Science Platform. With her recent research into neural-network-based sound processing, she is taking the next step towards better treatments for the hearing impaired. In time, her innovations will enable automatic speech applications (such as Siri and Alexa) to adapt to people with hearing damage. With this year's EIC Transition Grant, Sarah will be able to convert her promising research outcomes into a medical product with good market perspectives.

More information about the EIC Transition Grants

This is the first time the EIC has launched this call. 292 proposals were submitted, from which the EIC selected 42. The successful proposals will receive a total of €99 million in EU funding.

With this funding, results from pilot projects (such as the EIC 'Pathfinder' and ERC 'Proof of Concept' projects) can be transformed into commercially viable companies that bring an innovative product to the market.