Doctors can now get a peek behind the eardrum to better diagnose and treat chronic ear infections, thanks to a new medical imaging device invented by University of Illinois researchers. The device could usher in a new suite of non-invasive, 3-D diagnostic imaging tools for primary-care physicians.
The research team, led by University of Illinois electrical and computer engineering professor Stephen Boppart, will publish their advance in the online Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 28.
Ear infections are the most common conditions that pediatricians treat. Chronic ear infections can damage hearing and often require surgery to place drainage tubes in the eardrum, and problems can persist into adulthood.
Studies have found that patients who suffer from chronic ear infections may have a film of bacteria or other microorganisms that builds up behind the eardrum, very similar to dental plaque on unbrushed teeth. Finding and monitoring these so-called biofilms are important for successfully identifying and treating chronic ear infections.
"We know that antibiotics don't always work well if you have a biofilm, because the bacteria protect themselves and become resistant," Boppart says. "In the presence of a chronic ear infection that has a biofilm, the bacteria may not respond to the usual antibiotics, and you need to stop them. But without being able to detect the biofilm, we have no idea whether or not it's responding to treatment."
However, middle-ear biofilms are difficult to diagnose. A doctor looking through a standard otoscope sees only the eardrum's surface, not the bacteria-seeded biofilm lurking behind it