New NUS medical device cuts time and costs for treating glue ear condition

Dr Liang Wenyu, 31, Research Fellow, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, National University of Singapore, operating CLiKX, a handheld device meant to improve the surgical treatment of the ear ailment known as 'glue ear'. ST VIDEO: NG WEI KAI

SINGAPORE - Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a new handheld device for the treatment of a common ear condition that could significantly save on cost and time compared with current surgical methods.

The device, known as CLiKX, can shave up to six hours off post-operation recovery time. More time could possibly be saved since the device makes treatment simpler than using existing procedures.

CLiKX could also cut up to two thirds of the costs, based on an estimated cost of $2,000 to $3,000 for an unsubsidised patient.

The condition, known as otitis media with effusion (OME), colloquially referred to as "glue ear", affects up 709 million people worldwide annually.

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Some 90 per cent of those afflicted are children. In Singapore, about 84,000 children a year are affected.

In glue ear, there is a build up of liquid in the middle ear, and this has been shown to cause hearing impairment, tumours, brain infections and delays in speech and language learning if left untreated.

Usually treated with medication like antibiotics, surgery is a last resort in the treatment of the condition.

It can be caused by a variety of factors, but mostly affects children because their inner ears are still relatively undeveloped, making it difficult for fluid to drain out.

Treatment for the condition could improve with CLiKX. It is a hand-held and battery operated device that weighs only 185 grams and fits snugly in the operator's palm.

The device is the brainchild of five researchers from both the engineering and medical faculties of NUS.

The research into it is headed by Associate Professor Tan Kok Kiong, from NUS' Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr Lynne Lim, Adjunct Associate Professor from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's Department of Otolaryngology

The project started in 2011 and is now entering the trial phase.

CLiKX has the potential to save time, money and manpower for hospitals and patients alike, according to the researchers.

The existing surgical procedure for treating glue ear requires the use of general anaesthesia for young children as they must keep still during the 30-45min procedure.

It involves inserting a small tube, known as a grommet tube, into the patient's eardrum, in order to allow the fluid to drain out.

The procedure, although straightforward, requires up to 10 medical personnel and an operating theatre. It also requires the patient to fast for six hours before hand, and to be kept for observation for several hours after, making the whole procedure last up to eight hours from time of entry to the hospital. Another thing that needs to be factored in is the waiting time for booking of an operating theatre.

Factors such as these make a relatively simple procedure an ordeal for the young children who make up the bulk of those affected by glue ear, according to the researchers of CLiKX.

But the device cuts out these factors.

It uses stabilisers and sensors to carefully make - in one quick and precise step - the insertion of the grommet tube into the eardrum. After being carefully positioned by a surgeon, the device can insert the tube in a second.

The procedure also does not require the use of general aesthetic, cutting down risks from its use as well as reducing post-operation recovery time, which usually ranges from four to six hours.

CLiKX removes the need for an operating theatre as well, so the procedure can be done in a ward or clinic.

The inspiration for the device came to Dr Lim when she was on a humanitarian trip to Vietnam eight years ago.

"I was removing a tumour from a young child and we were successful, but because they did not have general anaesthetic we could not cure his OME (glue ear) problem."

The team is in talks with collaborators in commercialising the device and hopes to launch the product globally by 2020.