Great Video out of Stanford on Biological Cure

During a lot of my research on hearing loss and what sort of things are coming down the pipe for the next few years, I discovered Stanford’s Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss. I love just about everything about what they’re doing, down to the boldness of saying that they’re looking for a “cure,” which some sects of the Deaf community would likely be offended with. They’re approaching the biological fix from a few different angles (stem cells, gene therapy, molecular) and have made some pretty amazing strides.

I visited their site today just to check and see if there were any updates, and they actually posted a video that’s about an hour and a half long talking about where they are, how close they are, next steps, etc. It was a great state of the union.

tl;dw version:

  • Multiple approaches are being used because there’s multiple forms of deafness. The one that MIGHT be significant to Alex is a stem cell solution to re-grow the hair cells that may have been destroyed by the antibiotic that was given to Alex after he was born. The neat thing about this is that it’s slightly easier to remedy compared to a genetic issue, because Alex’s DNA is, to our knowledge, healthy, so no genetic issues would have to be spliced out prior to inserting into his ear.  Pretty cool.
  • Lots of parallels made to the Manhattan project and the idea that if you get a lot of smart people into a room, things get figured out quickly.
  • No real figure on when the “cure” will be made available, but the doctors all discussed it like an eventuality.  They didn’t specifically SAY this, but the highest hypothetical figure they gave out was 15 years.
  • Interesting point about how the team feels that they’re getting close to solving issues that big pharma will take notice and start pumping resources into them.
  • The video was clearly a fundraising type of thing, but they cited some pretty real examples of what they could get done NOW if they had more funding now.

The confidence that the team displayed regarding getting a cure out there has me pretty pumped up. I keep on looking at Alex’s CIs and telling myself that his current solution is the worst sounding and most invasive that he’ll ever have to deal with and that it’s all going to be downhill from here, but the idea that Alex could be given ear drops and just nullify the issue… that’s going to be amazing.

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A Little Optimism

This is a short one, but was ready for something a little more uplifting after my last entry.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my lunch break on Google looking up my favorite topic, hearing loss. Typically when I hunt around, it’s for news on the cochlear implant, but today I decided to look a little more broadly, so I searched around for “Deaf cure.”  I apologize in advance if you take personal offense to the combination of those two words, but it’s a popular search term. Also, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.

The results of the search were pretty cool. Just about everything I read was recent or semi-recent, and all projections were that a flat-out biological fix for dead hair cells, the most common cause for deafness by a landslide, were roughly ten or so years away. These weren’t written by over-optimistic bloggers like me, they were from real organizations and real studies performed that have traction.

This isn’t anything I’m going to cling to for dear life, but wow – if that comes to fruition and Alex has his biological hearing before he even hits his teens, no strings attached, no equipment… just an incredible thought. It sounds incredibly too good to be true, but it’s already happened before with Polio, measles, smallpox.

My favorite bit from a scientist who’s working at a solution using stem cells: “I do know when I see a baby right now who hasn’t any hearing whatsoever, probably in her lifetime, [she] will have regenerate therapy available for her.”

Yes, please.

Putting my Money where My Mouth is

I’ve always loved technology.  I still have very fond memories of playing with the family’s TI-99 console back in the day with my dad and how much excitement I got out of going to the local Big Lots with my mom and sisters where she’d let me pick out a game for our Atari (and maybe a model airplane, if I was lucky), and endlessly fiddling with our various home PCs.  Way back when, we had a monochromatic monitor with a simple, cursor-based word processor.  I didn’t love writing, but I loved playing with the thing.  The power of these devices, of course,  is a complete joke compared to what most of us now carry around every day in out pockets.

As I got older, most of the money that I earned working at the local pizza joint was piped into upgrading the family computer to soup-up my video games, then later into buying my own computer that I pieced together.  I went to college and majored in Computer Science, and today my profession is that of a software engineer / architect.  Buying a new piece of tech still brings me that childlike joy.

Because of my love and experience with tech, I feel like I have a pretty good pulse on how quickly it moves and what’s coming down the pipe.  There’s a guy out there by the name of Ray Kurzweil.  He wrote a fantastic book called The Singularity is Near.  The basic premise of this book is that technology is advancing at such a rate that computers will eventually be able to build faster and smarter versions of themselves, which will then go on to build faster and smarter versions of themselves, etc.  Basically, there’s a tipping point where computers will flat-out be smarter than humanity, at which point we’ll generally see some serious shit as every complex problem that exists in the world gets solved by rapidly-improving AI.  I think the projection was that this will all go down in 2040 or so.  I happen to think that the premise is inevitable, though the timeline feels either too aggressive or too incredible to accept.  Pick one.

I bring all of this up because it colors my perception of Alex’s hearing loss and what the future will hold in the context (AND THIS IS IMPORTANT) of what sort of opportunities he will have to be able to hear this world if he wants.

At this point, we’re not sure if Alex is even going to be eligible for any sort of cochlear implant (which would be necessary given his 90db hearing loss).  It seems pretty sad to us that our biggest hope for him at this point is a pair of relatively invasive surgeries that, if successful, will still require him to wear a very conspicuous apparatus on both sides of his head, but I find it amazing that this technology exists and has helped as many people as it has who want to hear or restore some of their hearing NOW.  In five years or ten years… these things will not look the same, or sound the same.

I have little doubt that within ten years a fully-implantable implant will be available for Alex that will perform better than whatever he might be implanted with today (if we’re lucky enough to be eligible for that option).  I actually brought this up to the ENT at our first meeting, who rightly said “But if it’s working, why go through another surgery?”  A perfectly valid point.  My mind at that point, though, gravitated toward “He’s right.  At that point, we’d wait until he’s 17 or 18 years old to get the best out there prior to college and take advantage of less traumatic / invasive operation methods and make sure that he’s the driver of that choice.”

Before I get off the topic, a cool note that the ENT brought up – Cochlear (one of the big three manufacturers of cochlear implants) implanted a few users with a very interesting design.  The internal portion of the implant includes microphones, which means that even when the user takes off the external piece of the apparatus, they still have some trace hearing through the internal part.  Essentially, it’s completely invisible hearing.  This implant also allows the external apparatus (the part that looks like the hearing aid and wire that leads up to the head) to be used, which allows the user to hear much better than using the invisible hearing mode.  Though the invisible hearing isn’t nearly as good, it’s still amazing to me that users would have the option of being able to do things with SOME hearing such as sleep, go swimming, etc, all without the clunky visible pieces.  Even cooler –  these folks were implanted eight years ago.  God knows what they’re testing behind closed doors today.

A like-minded friend of mine made an astute observation that I hadn’t considered, and that’s that the baby boomer generation is greatly helping to push money and resources into development of hearing aids / implants as they age.  Alex’s condition is clearly not a blessing (at least to us, no offense to the Deaf community intended!), but the fact that it affects as many people as it does makes it a high-visibility issue that researchers from different fields as well as assistive-technology companies are racing to address in increasingly innovative ways.

My dad was recently over at the house – he’s worn hearing aids for years.  I appreciate the hell out of the man, and I love getting his perspective as a guy who’s worn hearing aids for years and is generally well-researched.  He’s re-iterated many times that his hearing aids have VASTLY improved since he first began with them.  It’s great to hear that reinforced from a guy who lives in that world and has actually seen (heard) the benefits.  It makes it all more real.

Getting my feet back on the ground – all of this could of course be a moot point for Alex’s immediate future.  We probably won’t know if Alex can take cochlear implants for months, and even if he can, we don’t know how well his body will react.  Even if his body reacts well to them, the implants are only part of the equation.  Therapy and hard work is the other, larger part.

Overall point… it’s been wonderful and comforting to see what these technology-driven implants are capable of affording the young and old alike and to think of how much they’ll improve in the coming years.

Shannon and I recently joined a Facebook group of about 2000 parents of children with implants.  The stories and videos they put up are mind-blowing.  Kids singing in tune.  Stories of mainstreaming children with little to no issues.  Playing in the school’s orchestra.  Speaking with no sort of affect.  Videos of kids saying their first words only a few months after implantation.  Stories of honor roll, wonderful social lives, sports, music… the list goes on.  It’s been great to look at the results as well as the support system that’s in place in that group, as well as the sheer number of folks posting within.  These aren’t isolated superstars, they’re a large segment of kids with loving parents who fought through the surgery, dealt with the processors falling off, and got through the therapy to get their kids over the mountain that Shannon and I are staring in the face right now.

It’s all both inspirational as well as terrifying.  If the tech gives us an opportunity, Shannon and I will do whatever it takes to get Alex the therapy he needs to get the best results possible for his brain to wire itself up for hearing / speaking.  If we get the miraculous results that some of these folks are getting, then as time goes, the implants will get smaller and better, perhaps to the point that they’re always on, invisible, don’t need to be charged, and are either as good or better than normal hearing one day.  Perhaps the enormous amount of stem cell therapy being researched for hearing loss will give Alex a purely-biological option.  It’s terrifying because this is all building up a great amount of hope that could be squashed and send us down the path of devastation again.

If there’s a greater power steering any of this, I’ve considered that perhaps it decided to put my faith and interest in technology to the test by taking Alex’s hearing from him.  Granted, that’s a bit jerk-y of said power to do, but the thought has crossed my mind.  Hence the title of this entry.  Though it’s true that if we’re lucky enough to be able to go down this road (and yes, I know how odd it is to call it “lucky”) that our family’s dedication to our new addition and elbow grease will be more important to his success than the implant, it can’t be denied that the implant is still necessary to allow Alex to hear our voices in the first place, and it WILL improve, just as braces lead to invisiline and thick coke glasses lead to lasik.  It’s a huge component of Alex’s potential hearing future.

If… IF we can get the implant early on, when language development is key, I see a future for Alex where his disability melts into the background of his life in all ways and that the combination of hard work, technology, and familial dedication will overcome that mountain that was put in front of him.

We just need the chance.