In December 2014, Professor Per-Ingvar Brånemark passed away at the age of 85.
Professor Brånemark is generally considered the father of osseointegration. He coined the term in the 1960s during studies in bone rheology and defined it as the direct contact between a titanium implant and living bone tissue.
The first clinical application of titanium implants was in oral surgery, where they continue to be used today to anchor dental prosthesis. For the now millions of patients around the world, dental implants have offered a completely new life of being able to chew, swallow, speak and smile.
Discovery of a lifetime
How these dental implants led to the first bone conduction hearing implant is a story of serendipity. In the early days, Brånemark was looking to evaluate how well the titanium implant had fused with the bone. In this process, he tried a new acoustic method of measurement where he put a bone vibrator on a patient with a dental implant. When the vibrator started, the man was quite startled to hear a very loud sound coming from the vibrator, as he suffered from hearing loss and did not expect to hear so well. An amazing new discovery was born – a bone-anchored implant could be used to send sound efficiently through bone! This would open up a totally new way of treating people who had, up until this point, not been able to hear as they could not benefit from traditional air conduction hearing aids.
Brånemark’s discovery gave birth to the Baha System, and today more than 100,000 patients around the world can hear and communicate thanks to a bone conduction hearing solution. And it has all been possible thanks to Professor Brånemark’s pioneering work.
Brånemark’s worked in close cooperation with the Department of Otolaryngology at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden in the early days of bone conduction hearing systems. Two of his closest collaborators were Bo Håkansson, now professor at Chalmers, and Anders Tjellström, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.hc.
Here, they remember Professor Brånemark in their own words.
Bo Håkansson, was the innovator of the original transducer used to help patients hear through a Baha System. He remembers the early years:
“For me, as a young graduate student, it was incredibly inspiring to be part of a research environment where Brånemark tied leading researchers from both Sweden and abroad to the research team. The weekly interrogations were admittedly tough for the students but certainly very educational, and these students have later ended up in senior positions at universities around the world.
Professor Brånemark may have been perceived as tough to work with, especially among company heads with other priorities, but I got to know a soft side of him, a side that genuinely cared about his patients and coworkers. I remember his indomitable quest to meet patients’ needs as a top priority before managements’ profits. One of his doctrines was that everyone involved in research in these areas must meet with patients at least once a week. According to him, it was the basis for any successful medical project.”
Anders Tjellström recalls:
“In the early 70s, I was working as a resident at the ENT department in Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg and had the opportunity to assist Professor Brånemark in some of his surgery. Brånemark met many patients with facial defects due to tumour surgery, trauma or congenital malformation. These patients suffered heavily from their defects. Many of them could not be part of social life. Some would not even go out in daylight hours.
Using the same titanium solution as for dental and bone conduction hearing solutions, these patients were able to get implants for the retention of facial prostheses made from silicon. Brånemark took an eager interest in this work and was often the leading surgeon in major defects. The work with cranio-facial prosthesis is today an integrated part of Cochlear; known as the VistaFix System.
Those of us who had the privilege to have Professor Brånemark as our teacher, mentor and friend have been very fortunate. The empty space he has left behind will be hard to fill. One remarkable thing about this world-renowned scientist was his bedside manner with patients. No matter what, the patient was always his main focus.”
Here at Cochlear we are very grateful for Professor Brånemark’s discovery and lifetime focus on patient needs, work that has increased the quality of life for so many people around the world. His spirit still lives on here at Cochlear where we continue his legacy of innovation.
The osseointegrated titanium implant is still the strong foundation of the Baha System, and we thank Professor Brånemark for making it possible.