Duke alums awarded prestigious Lasker prizes

Even Blake S. Wilson B.S.E.E. ’74 is in awe of the cochlear implant, and the electrical engineer is one of the core developers of the device. “Most of today’s implanted patients can understand everyday speech with hearing alone, without lip reading—many in noisy environments, some even on the telephone. To me, that’s a flat [out] miracle,” he told DukeMed magazine recently.

That description of the implant’s impact explains why the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation awarded Wilson its 2013 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. He shares the prize with fellow pioneers Graeme M. Clark of Australia and Ingeborg J. Hochmair of Austria. 

The foundation also honored Melinda Gates ’86, M.B.A. ’87, Hon. ’13 and her husband, Bill Gates, with the 2013 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for their contributions to improving health in the developing world and elsewhere.

Wilson’s work dates back to the late 1980s when he built on Clark’s and Hochmair’s advances by introducing his “continuous interleaved sampling” system, which made it possible for cochlear implant recipients to understand words and sentences with greater clarity. That work provided the basis for sound-processing strategies now widely used, and launched an expansion in the number of deaf and nearly deaf people who have received the device in one or both ears. Now, a large majority of cochlear implant users can talk on their cell phones and follow conversations in relatively quiet environments.

The Lasker Awards are among the science community’s most respected prizes.

Eighty-three Lasker laureates also have received the Nobel Prize. The awards program recognizes the contributions of scientists, clinicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease.

When he accepted his prize on September 20, Wilson spoke of the worldwide collaboration it took to develop the cochlear implant and the improvements still to be made. “This magnificent award will greatly increase awareness of how cochlear implants can enable severely and profoundly deaf persons to realize their full potential in life, and that awareness will in turn facilitate further dissemination and development of this marvelous technology,” Wilson said.

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