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The Boston Globe

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Tiny in-ear drug vial could ease ringing noise

Paul Ward jolted awake on a vacation day 11 years ago because his ears were “squealing away’’ with a noise only he could hear. The electrical engineer had abruptly developed tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that can interfere with sleeping, concentration, and peace of mind. Ward, now 50, knows the condition intimately. The high-pitched squeal cycles up and down on a predictable, three-day cycle: high, medium, low.

Now, a colleague of Ward’s at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge has received a small grant from the Department of Defense to fund the development of a device that could one day be implanted in the ear to deliver drugs directly to the source of the problem.

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There are currently no specific drugs to treat tinnitus, but researchers building the device said it could be used to deliver drugs that might help relieve the symptoms, such as lidocaine, a local anesthetic.

The device would be externally controlled, releasing bursts of a drug when it was needed, and eventually biodegrade, so the patient would be spared having to undergo a surgical procedure to remove the device.

“We saw an opportunity to look at tinnitus - a very complex disease because it’s so hard to quantify and measure and very difficult to treat,’’ said Jeffrey Borenstein, a bioengineer at Draper Laboratory who is working on the device with Jane Wang, a fellow at Draper and a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

‘A returning soldier who . . . has debilitating tinnitus would really like to have some control over symptoms.’

Jeffrey Borenstein Draper Laboratory bioengineer
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Tinnitus, which is relatively common, can be triggered by a variety of causes and manifest as a whistle, a squeal, a buzz, or ringing in the ears. It can be intermittent or constant, and it can range in severity, from mildly annoying to nearly impossible to ignore.

Tinnitus has become more high-profile because it is the most common disability reported among veterans. The condition can develop after exposure to extremely loud noise, as well as through head or neck injuries. In 2009, more than 760,000 veterans were afflicted with tinnitus, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Borenstein had already been developing a device that could deliver drugs to the inner ear, focused on treating hearing loss. But he decided to turn his attention to a different challenge, in part after learning about the condition from Ward. The device is part of the emerging field of electronics made of plastic. With its ability to administer drugs to the patient on demand, it could offer a powerful new channel to help manage or treat tinnitus.

“We’re thinking that a returning soldier who comes back and has debilitating tinnitus would really like to have some control over symptoms,’’ Borenstein said. “A lot of what happens now is there are behavioral approaches and masking approaches and things like that, but if there were a pharmacologic approach where they’d have some control over it, that could be a big contribution.’’

Borenstein said that the one-year, $100,000 grant should support the making of a prototype that could function in the laboratory. If that is successful, the device would have to be tested in animals, and ultimately people.

Many questions remain, such as which drugs would be used and how long the device should last.

Anne Hogan, an audiologist at the Boston VA Healthcare System, said current treatments are focused on managing the condition so people can lead full lives, using techniques such as education, counseling, relaxation, and sounds to distract attention away from the sound. She said any device that could help give patients relief from the symptoms - especially if it were without side effects - would be welcome.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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