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Searching for new ways to treat ear infections

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Research Training Fellowship*:Mr Michael Mather

Inflammation of the middle ear, caused by a bacterial or viral infection, is one of the most common diseases in childhood. More than two-thirds of children will experience at least one acute episode before their third birthday.

Around half will have repeated infections and some will also go on to develop chronic inflammation and need antibiotics or surgery.But these treatments aren’t ideal – bacteria can develop resistance and surgery requires a general anaesthetic. Mr Michael Mather, a surgeon at Newcastle University, is using cutting-edge techniques to investigate how immune cells in the middle ear respond to infection. His ultimate goal is to identify new targets for the development of new, better treatments for this very common childhood illness.

How are children’s lives affected now?

The small space behind the eardrum – known as the middle ear – usually contains air. But it can become filled with fluid, typically when a child has a cold – and if this gets infected by germs, it becomes inflamed and painful.

A child with a middle ear infection may experience a range of distressing symptoms including earache and a high temperature. Although most will usually clear up within a few days, many children will get repeated infections – and some will develop long-term middle ear problems.

“Middle ear infections are not only painful and distressing for children, but they can also result in regular absences from school and hearing issues that impact on their social and educational development,” says Mr Mather.

Children with recurring bacterial infections or with long-term middle ear problems are usually treated with antibiotics and surgery.

“But prolonged or repeated antibiotic treatment can lead to drug resistance and surgery has risks, including the need for a general anaesthetic,” says Mr Mather.

Our goal is to gain a better understanding of how middle ear infections develop, which we hope will ultimately lead to the development of safe and effective new treatments that can reduce the need for antibiotics and surgery

Mr Michael Mather

How could this research help?

“Our goal is to gain a better understanding of how middle ear infections develop, which we hope will ultimately lead to the development of safe and effective new treatments that can reduce the need for antibiotics and surgery,” says Mr Mather.

The team is using cutting-edge technologies to compare the immune cells and molecules within the tissues of middle ear samples collected from children undergoing surgery for recurring infections or long-term problems – with samples from healthy ears.

“By analysing the data, we hope to identify key differences between healthy and inflamed tissues that could be targeted with new treatments to stop an initial infection becoming a long-term problem,” says Mr Mather.

The team will also create a new and unique 3D laboratory model of middle ear cells – a so-called ‘disease in a dish’, which will provide an invaluable tool for studying ear infections and for testing potential new treatments.

* Research Training Fellowships: Each year, Action Medical Research awards these prestigious grants to help develop some of the UK’s brightest doctors and scientists as future leaders in children’s research.

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Mr Michael W Mather, MBBS MRes MRCS (ENT)
Location Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle Medical School
Project Team Professor Janet A Wilson, MBChB MD FRCSEng FRCSLT Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, BSc MBBCh (Hons) MRCP PhD Professor Colin D Bingle, BSc PhD Mr Jason Powell, MBBS MClinRes MRCS DOHNS PhD
Other Locations Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, Otolaryngology, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease, University of Sheffield
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £241,819
Start Date
End Date
Duration 36 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2779


  1. Patient, Professional Reference article: Acute Otitis Media in Children. [website accessed 09 March 2019]


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