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HJ REPORT

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000365478.55363.83
Hj Report
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✓ SONOVA TO ACQURE ADVANCED BIONICS

Sonova Holding AG, parent company of Phonak and Unitron, has reached an agreement to purchase Advanced Bionics, a cochlear implant manufacturer based in Valencia, CA. The sale, scheduled to close in February if no unexpected regulatory issues arise, will make the Swiss-based hearing aid giant the only company in that industry with a major stake in the implant market as well. Sonova will pay $489 million for Advanced Bionics, according to its statement released November 9.

Valentin Chapero, CEO of Sonova, said, “With this transaction Sonova adds a new source of sustainable business growth and enhances its position as the leading provider of hearing healthcare solutions.” In its announcement, Sonova stated that its “strong commitment to innovation will boost Advanced Bionics' position as an innovation leader in the cochlear implant industry.” It added that Sonova expects AB's sales, which were $117 million in 2008, to double within 3 to 5 years.

Sonova said that the transaction will enable the parties to benefit from each other's technologies. AB will be able to apply Sonova's hardware and software platforms to the implant field, while “the combination of Advanced Bionics' superior nerve-stimulation approach and Sonova's thorough understanding of the acoustical challenges of profound hearing loss will result in products that deliver the best possible hearing for cochlear implant patients.”

Advanced Bionics (AB) will remain a separate business within the Sonova Group. Founded in 1993 by Al Mann, AB operates in more than 30 countries and holds an estimated 18% share of the global implant market. That places it behind the Australian-based Cochlear Ltd., the dominant company in the field, and ahead of Med-El, of Innsbruck, Austria, which is the other significant player.

Jeffrey Greiner, CEO of Advanced Bionics, said of the merger of the two companies, “We have taken an enormous step toward ensuring that AB remains the industry's performance leader in the future.”

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✓ NEW YORK TAXI FLEET TO BE LOOPED

In January, following a successful 18-month pilot program, New York's taxi fleet will be authorized by the city to have induction loops installed. Loop systems, which transmit sound directly to telecoil-equipped hearing aids and to cochlear implants, are found in many public buildings and transportation systems in Europe, including in London's taxis, where they have been mandatory since 1998. However, the New York pilot project, which involved 13 taxis, was the first in the United States.

The project was spearheaded by the Hearing Access Program and its dynamic founder and chair, Janice Schacter. Schacter, a former attorney, decided to dedicate herself to advocating for people who are deaf or hard of hearing after her daughter, Arielle, was discovered to have a hearing loss at age 2-1/2.

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Schacter told HJ that she was distressed to discover how few public facilities are accessible to people with hearing loss. She wondered, “If the technology exists, why isn't it implemented and used.” That question inspired her to change the situation. She launched a campaign to get loops and other hearing assistance technology installed in major public facilities. To that end she established the Hearing Access Program in 2002.

“My goal,” she said, “is to make New York the model for accessibility for people with hearing loss.” She has worked diligently to bring assistive equipment to major cultural institutions, including the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of her latest achievements was persuading the New York Yankees to loop the ticket window and gift shop desk at the new Yankee Stadium, which opened this year. Later, some of the luxury boxes there will also be looped.

Schacter's ardent advocacy extends beyond her hometown and she is now working globally. She serves or has served on city, state, and federal commissions addressing issues facing persons with hearing loss.

However, looping the New York taxi fleet, which with its 13,000 cabs is the nation's largest, is one of her most ambitious undertakings. When the pilot program ends, the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) will encourage taxi owners to install induction loops, but it will be optional. Schacter hopes that owners will opt to get them. She points out that the systems cost only $250 to $300, require no maintenance, and have proven popular with passengers who have used them during the trial period.

Allan Fromberg, a deputy commissioner for public affairs for the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, confirmed the city's support for the looping of taxis. The pilot program went very well, he said. The equipment performed the way it was supposed to and passengers and drivers found it helpful.

Meanwhile, the Hearing Access Program will be celebrating another accomplishment in 2010, when induction loops will start being installed in all 489 information booths in New York's subway system. Between the taxi and subway projects, getting around New York should start getting a lot easier for hearing-impaired residents and visitors.

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✓ HEARING AIDS BECOMING STYLISH

Back in the 1990s hearing aid manufacturers and those who dispense hearing aids would often say, “If only hearing aids were considered as hip and stylish as eyewear.” At the time this seemed to many more like a dream than a realistic goal. But much has changed. Today, hearing aids often are fashion statements, as well as high-tech medical devices, and they come in all sorts of shapes and configurations and colors and patterns. Just how far hearing aids have come toward trading in their dowdy old image for a far more appealing one is evidenced by the spate of design, technology, and style awards that they have begun to receive.

For example, here are some of the prizes for hearing aids announced in just the last few weeks of the year. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), to be held January 7-10 in Las Vegas, gave a 2010 Innovations Award in the health and wellness category to Starkey Laboratories' S Series™ with Sweep™ Technology behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid. Sweep Technology replaces traditional hearing aid buttons and dials with a touch surface that allows users to adjust volume and change memories with the sweep or touch of a finger.

Sonic Innovations was also a CES honoree. It received a 2010 Design and Engineering Award for the company's Touch line of hearing aids and was awarded Best of Innovations in the health and wellness category. Touch comes in three technology levels and a choice of five base colors and 15 accent color clips. CES is the world's largest consumer electronics trade show.

Meanwhile, Popular Science named the Lyric, the “invisible” hearing aid from InSound Medical, a winner of its Best of What's New Award in the Health category. Lyric resides deep in the hearing canal for up to 4 months, during which it requires no battery changes, operates around the clock, can be worn in the shower, and uses the ear's natural anatomy to funnel sound to the eardrum.

On a related note, the Siemens Hearing Instruments “Live out loud” advertising campaign for its Vibe hearing aid won a silver Clio award in the healthcare category at the advertising industry's annual awards ceremonies November 13 in New York. Set to techno music, the video ads feature very young, very cool runway models and dancers flaunting the tiny instrument, accompanied by the line “Why hide your Vibe?” Twenty years ago, who could have imagined such an ad for a hearing aid?

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✓ IF MICE CAN HEAR BETTER, MAYBE PEOPLE CAN TOO

Two recently published reports on research with aging mice raise hopes that eventually science can find ways to prevent or mitigate presbycusis in humans. Writing in the online journal Neurobiology of Aging, Robert Frisina, a professor of otolaryngology, biomedical engineering, and neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester, and five co-authors describe a study conducted at the International Center for Hearing and Speech Research in Rochester.

For the study, two strains of mice were interbred—CBA mice that lose their hearing with age, like most people, and C57 mice, which have even worse hearing than the CBA mice from an early age, but whose brains do not age normally. One effect of their youthful brains is that the C57 mice maintain their libido and breed far more prolifically at an advanced age than the CBAs.

The researchers' goal was to create a mouse that mirrored the approximately 5% of humans with so-called “golden ears” that remain youthful and function well even as the people's brains age normally. As hoped, the cross-breeding produced a new strain of mice that both breeds well and hears well into old age (for mice), even though their brains age normally.

Frisina said, “These mice have the hearing of a young adult. Understanding why should help us understand more about how a person's hearing changes as he or she ages.”

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Without bak gene, mice resist presbycusis

Meanwhile, in an article released online last month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Tomas Prolla, the senior author, and colleagues reported that age-related damage to mouse ears starts with oxidative stress—brought on by free radicals. This stress triggers apotopsis, a process in which damaged cells are programmed to “commit suicide,” said Prolla, a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The researchers found that in some mice the programmed cell death that led hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons in other mice to self-destruct and cause age-related hearing loss did not occur. The scientists observed that these mice lacked a gene, the bak gene, which mice normally have, and that was shown to play a role in apotopsis.

These results suggest that if oxidative stress can be prevented, it may lead to effective ways to prevent presbycusis. Prolla reported that the study found that two oral antioxidants—alpha lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10—“were very specific in their protection against apoptosis and hearing loss.”

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.