A Cure for Hearing Loss?

Closeup of label on pill bottleEn español | All you boomers who listened to too much rock ’n’ roll may eventually get back your hearing by popping a pill.

Researchers are closing in on a way to reverse sensorineural loss, the most common cause of hearing loss. Just as important, pharmaceutical companies are putting big money into the effort. Garnering the most publicity so far is a clinical trial of an injectable drug backed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis.

Given that 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss — including two-thirds of those who are 70 or older — a drug to reverse or prevent it would have a significant impact.

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Novartis’ drug, developed by the Maryland biotech firm GenVec, is injected into the inner ear (under anesthesia). The first patient in the trial, a Denver man who had been hard of hearing since he had meningitis as a toddler, underwent the surgical treatment in October. After the two-month period when the drug would be expected to take effect, he reported no significant change. But, he told the New York Times, “I have incidents where I think I’m hearing a new sound or hearing sound differently than I did before.” The Times article also mentioned other drug-company efforts to regenerate and/or prevent hearing loss, some involving an injection; others, a pill.

Adding to the research effort is the Hearing Health Foundation’s Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), a consortium of 15 top academic researchers, most of whom have spent a lifetime working on these issues. These scientists have agreed to work collaboratively, sharing research findings. The group’s approach includes large-scale genomics experiments, testing the genomes of species that can spontaneously regenerate hair cells (birds and fish) against those that don’t (mammals).

These comparative tests may help scientists understand the mechanism by which some species can reverse hair cell loss, and allow the researchers to exploit this in mammals — including humans. It’s a longer process than some that have produced early results, but experts think it’s more likely to end up with a workable, effective treatment. Peter G. Barr-Gillespie of the Oregon Hearing Research Center and head of the HRP project, said in an email that it will probably be at least another five to 10 years before the research is solid enough to support a clinical trial. But that’s still soon enough to help a lot of us in the boomer generation.

When I started reading and writing about hearing loss, just five years ago, no large-scale efforts to reverse hearing loss existed. Today the field is full of competing (and collaborative, in the case of the HRP) efforts to come up with a drug — and a drug delivery system — that could help millions of people. Eventually noise- and drug-related damage and age-related hearing loss could be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, protect your hearing. At least for now, you can’t get it back once it’s gone.

Photo: DNY59/istock

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