Researchers aim to bring ear-infection cause to light

Researchers aim to bring ear-infection cause to light

URBANA — Oh, those painful ear infections.

They're said to bring kids to the doctor more than any other ailment. And for some unlucky children, the infections return not long after the last spoonful of medicine is swallowed.

But there may be hope for the children of the future: A new imaging system is being designed to take the guesswork out of ear-infection diagnosis and treatment.

Under development by a University of Illinois and Carle research team, it can detect a hidden colony of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — called biofilms — that lurk behind the eardrum.

Biofilms are associated with chronic ear infections, and are currently difficult to detect without surgery. They aren't seen through the otoscope, the tool commonly used by doctors in ear exams, according to research team leader Dr. Stephen Boppart, a UI electrical and computer engineering professor with a medical degree.

Doctors diagnosing an ear infection typically have to assume bacteria that commonly cause infections are the culprits and that treatments that generally clear up ear infections will work, said Dr. Michael Novak, a Carle Physician Group otolaryngologist involved in the research.

But when biofilms are present, the bacteria may not respond to standard antibiotic treatments, he and Boppart said.

"Just being able to see the biofilms will change practice," Boppart said.

But he and his team aim to provide an imaging device for doctors that will provide even more specific information than that.

The next phase of research will be to identify the type of bacteria in biofilms, so doctors can better target treatments to infections, Novak said.

Novak is already using a prototype of the imaging device in his office at Carle — though, he said, the technology isn't quite ready for everyday use in doctors' offices.

"This is opening up a whole new world to how we see infections and how we treat them," he said.

Ear infections are so common that three out of four children have at least one of them by the time they reach age 3, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health. Children get ear infections more than adults do, because their immune systems aren't as well-developed and their eustachian tubes are smaller and more level, making it more difficult for the fluid to drain out of their ears, according to the NIDCD.

Boppart's team is in its second year of research backed by a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The imaging system the team is developing uses optical coherence tomography, which produces high-resolution, three-dimensional images much like ultrasound imaging does, except it uses light instead of sound, Boppart said.

He projects that routine use of the ear OTC device in doctors' offices could be about five years down the road.

Novak said the benefits would extend beyond the potential for better-targeted targeted treatment and less overuse of antibiotics. It could also have a big impact on reducing the need for commonly done surgical procedures to place ventilation tubes in eardrums to help prevent future infections, he said.

Boppart's team published its latest research findings in the early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 28.

This story appeared in print on June 3.