There is no doubt that we live in an exciting time. A time of never before imagined scientific advances in all facets of health, including hearing health. We are learning about the extensive impact of hearing loss on the brain and emotional health. Hearing aids are advancing in leaps and bounds, and genetic research is showing promise for returning hearing function. It is this last advancement that has been in the news often over the last year and has given millions of Americans living life with hearing impairment hope for the future of their hearing.
One study recently published in the Nature Biotechnology focused on how gene therapy can be used to restore the essential hair follicles within the ear that are largely responsible for hearing.
In the study, researchers used gene therapy to help restore hearing in mice, proving that a similar process could be on the horizon to help return at least partial hearing to people. In comments made to BBC about the findings, Dr. Jeffrey Holt of Boston Children’s Hospital where the experiments were completed stated, “It’s unprecedented, this is the first time we’ve seen this level of hearing restoration.” He went on to state, “We’ve really gotten a good understanding of the basic science, of the biology of the inner ear, and now we’re at the point of being able to translate that knowledge and apply it to human patients in the very near future.”
In the Boston Children’s Hospital experiments, researchers developed a synthetic virus that was able to correct instructions for building hair cells. In many cases of hearing loss damaged hair cells are to blame.
Boston Children’s Hospital isn’t alone in using advances in genetics and gene therapy to treat hearing loss either. Other institutions are on the same path to help people with hearing loss, including Harvard, MIT, and even Stanford. Research has found that the majority of the most common types of hearing loss are caused by certain gene mutations, and these researchers are using the advances in genetics to override those mutations and potentially change how we treat hearing loss in people of all ages.
Columbia University Medical Center is also now conducting the first gene therapy trial for hearing loss. “We hope that the treatment will one day allow doctors to regrow the critical hair cells that are involved in hearing, possibly even supplanting the need for hearing aids and cochlear implants,” added Dr. Lawrence Lustig, Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery at Columbia.
There are still many questions to answer in all of the research now being done and much research to be done to answer those questions. Among the questions researchers would still like to answer are:
- Is the virus used to correct the genetic instructions safe for human use?
- How long-lasting is this solution?
- What is the window of opportunity for this type of gene therapy?
Longer-term studies are definitely needed, but there is no arguing that what we know about hearing loss and how to treat hearing loss is growing in leaps and bounds.