Around 10 million people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss – the most common type being sensorineural hearing loss.
What is sensorineural hearing loss?
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is a deafness or hearing loss that occurs when tiny hair cells in the inner ear (the sensory hearing organ) or the neural hearing pathways (nerves) are damaged. The damage can occur to the nerves or cochlea and associated inner ear parts for a number of reasons – degeneration related to old age, injury to the inner ear due to loud noises, infections, abnormal pressure and non-cancerous growths to name a few.
Whatever the cause, the impact of sensorineural hearing loss is significant in the everyday life of an individual – from listening to the television or radio to communicating with friends and family. It is not surprising then that many people who suffer from hearing loss often find themselves feeling frustrated and isolated.
Current hearing aid technology
Today, technology has come a long way in improving the clarity of hearing for those suffering with hearing loss. Hearing aid design has developed hugely, helping people to continue their everyday lives with very little interference, but up until recently, there has been very few advancements in actually correcting the cause of hearing loss.
Getting to the (hair) root of the problem
A recent study and new clinical trials carried out by Dr Albert Edge and his team at Dutch company Audion Therapeutics suggest that with the help of a new drug, humans may be able to regrow the sensory hair cells within the inner ear, the damage of which is responsible for most cases of hearing loss.
What’s interesting about the process of inner ear hair cell regeneration is that many vertebrates – birds, fish and frogs for example – naturally possess this ability; mammals, however, do not. The discovery of the drugs’ potential actually arose following a report of its side effects in dementia treatment and lead to Dr Edge’s observation that a “notch inhibitor” molecule gives rise to new hair cells in a culture.
The regenerated hair cells were then grown in the cochlea (inner ear) of mice, and thanks to the pre-existing knowledge about the arrangement hair cells in order of frequency along the cochlea, they were able to pinpoint the effectiveness of these new cells on hearing.
Hearing hope loud and clear
The study is in its early days but Edge and the team at Audion Therapeutics are now planning their first, small human clinical trials. Whilst the complete development of this drug for humans could take several more years, the initial results are promising and hearing loss sufferers may be able to look forward to a hearing-aid-free future.
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