MIT Researchers aim to reverse hearing loss by stimulating the growth of hair cells in the inner ear

Over 40 million people in the US suffer from acquired sensorineural hearing loss, the most prevalent type of hearing loss.

This condition affects more than just a person’s hearing ability; it also alters their communication and speech perception. Individuals with hearing loss may struggle to speak on the phone, face difficulties at work or school, and experience social isolation.

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Hearing loss could also lead to other serious medical conditions such as depression and dementia when it gets worse.

Instead of the traditional hearing aids or implants, biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics is looking to reverse hearing loss with regenerative therapy.

Every person is born with a finite number of sensory hair cells in each cochlea, the hearing part of the inner ear. Over time, loud noises and drugs, including certain antibiotics and chemotherapies, cause these hair cells to die.

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Frequency uses small molecules to program progenitor cells, which are descendants of stem cells in the inner ear, to produce tiny hair cells. The company’s drug candidate is meant to be injected into the ear to regenerate these cells in the cochlea.

“We know that birds and amphibians are able to restore hair cells throughout their lives, so we set out to explore whether, with treatment, this could be possible for humans as well,” explained Dr. Jeffrey Karp, a biomedical engineer and researcher.

Three separate clinical studies have shown that the treatment has improved people’s hearing after a single injection, as measured by tests of speech perception, which is the ability to comprehend speech and recognition words.

“Speech perception is the No. 1”. 1 goal for improving hearing and the No. 1 need we hear from patients,” said Frequency co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Chris Loose, Ph.D.

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The company has given the drug to over 200 patients to date.

“Some of these people [in the trials] couldn’t hear for 30 years, and for the first time they said they could go into a crowded restaurant and hear what their children were saying,” said MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer. “It’s so meaningful to them. Obviously more needs to be done, but just the fact that you can help a small group of people is really impressive to me.”

Frequency is now recruiting for a 124-person trial, from which preliminary results should be released early next year.

The company’s founders are thrilled to have been able to help people improve their hearing through clinical trials.

“Hearing is such an important sense; it connects people to their community and cultivates a sense of identity,” said Karp. “I think the potential to restore hearing will have enormous impact on society.”

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Several years ago, Langer and Karp began studying the human gut lining, which regenerates itself almost daily.

With postdoc Xiaolei Yin, a scientific advisor to Frequency, they learned that the same molecules that control the stem cells in the gut are also used by progenitor cells, which can turn into more specialized cells in the body.

In 2012, the research team used small molecules to turn progenitor cells into thousands of hair cells in the lab. Karp, whose father wears a hearing aid, said no one had ever produced such a high number of hair cells before.

“I looked at them and said, ‘I think we have a breakthrough,’” he said. “That’s the first and only time I’ve used that phrase.”

Elderly man wearing a hearing aid
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Frequency’s founders believe that injecting small molecules into the inner ear to transform progenitor cells into more specialized cells offers advantages over gene therapies, which may involve extracting a patient’s cells, programming them in a lab, and delivering them to the right area.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 or 15 years, because of the resources being put into this space and the incredible science being done, we can get to the point where [reversing hearing loss] would be similar to Lasik surgery, where you’re in and out in an hour or two and you can completely restore your vision. I think we’ll see the same thing for hearing loss,” Karp said.

This is another significant advancement in the world of medical science. Hopefully, this drug will get rolled out to the public in the next couple of years.

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