Dr Benjamin Wei, PhD
Pneumococcal meningitis is an infection which can cause death or severe brain damage. In 2002 the US Federal Drug Administration found that people who received a cochlear implant with a particular kind of electrode had a greater risk of developing this disease.
Dr Benjamin Wei, a specialist surgeon in Otolaryngology and head and neck surgery, undertook PhD studies, at the Bionics Institute and The University of Melbourne, to discover the cause of the increased risk. The studies confirmed the increased risk of meningitis is caused by the presence of an electrode array and the surgery to implant it. Immunising against Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacterium that causes the infection, significantly lowers this risk. This was strong experimental support for what is now the standard clinical practice of immunising all cochlear implant patients.
Implant design is also important and safer arrays, such as those from Cochlear Ltd, do not have a gap created by a surgical positioner, where the bacteria can grow. The Bionics Institute is embarking on research to develop new implantable devices such as our epilepsy treatment device and these findings can be used in future for assessing the risk of infection for any implantable device.
Ben was awarded the 2008 Premier's Award for Medical Research for his achievements.