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

More than 40 million Americans suffer from acquired sensory hearing loss, which is the most common type.

This condition affects more than just a person’s hearing ability; it also alters their communication and speech perception. Individuals with hearing loss may have difficulty speaking on the phone, have difficulties at school or work, and feel isolated.

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If it gets worse, hearing impairment could lead to depression or dementia.

Frequency Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, is looking to reverse hearing loss through regenerative therapy instead of traditional hearing aids and implants.

Each person was born with a finite amount of sensory hair cells in their cochlea (the inner ear’s hearing part). These hair cells die when exposed to loud noises or drugs such as antibiotics and chemotherapies.

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Frequency uses small molecules in order to program progenitor cell lines, which are descendants from stem cells in the inner ears, 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 recognize words.

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

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To date, the drug has been administered to more than 200 patients.

“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 currently looking for people to participate in a 124-person trial. Preliminary results will be available 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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Langer and Karp began to study the human gut lining several years ago. It regenerates almost every day.

Frequency’s scientific advisor, postdoc Xiaolei Yin discovered that progenitor cells can also use the same molecules as stem cells to create more specialized cells.

The 2012 research team used small molecules in order to make progenitor cell precursors into thousands of hair cells. Karp, whose dad wears a hearing aid and is an avid hair-cell collector, said that no one had ever made such a large number 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 important advancement in medical science. This drug should be available for purchase in the next few years.

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