I’ve been having a quiet holiday weekend when I came across an interesting article on hearing loss. It is about a new gene therapy that promises to help patients with hearing impairment regrow new hair cells (hair cells in your cochlea transmits the sound waves that you hear). Now, this got me so excited because this therapy is one of the newest treatments that prides itself on being the cure to hearing loss.
Is this simply too good to be true or is this worth a look?
Worse than a Virus (sort of…)
If you’re someone who suffers from hearing loss or knows someone who does, then you have a clear idea of just how much a person actually loses when they start to have problems with their hearing.
I mean, there’s the possible link to dementia and depression, plus you might start having problems with school or work, your personal relationships may start suffering, and if hearing loss hit you during your prime, you can end up losing your career over it.
I became an Atlanta hearing doctor because I knew that hearing loss is a very profound problem (it’s the third most common health problem in the US, affecting about 36 million Americans). Most people do not give much thought about hearing loss until they get affected by it through someone they love or are experiencing it by themselves – and I think that should change.
Perhaps because the starting symptoms are often not very noticeable until someone starts having functional problems, that the problem does not get much attention. It can start as ringing in the ears, also referred to as tinnitus, and can end up in complete loss of hearing. In my 3 decades of experience as an Atlanta hearing doctor, people generally do not seek help until they already have evident problems with communicating either with loved ones or at work/school.
This is the same scenario that musical composer Jay Alan Zimmerman had. He had no idea about his hearing impairment until one fateful day when he was working on a track and realized that he can’t hear a part that was already playing.
You can only imagine just how jarring this news is. Losing your hearing is just about the worst thing that can happen to someone who makes a living producing beautiful music. How else is he supposed to continue with his career?
He contacted some hearing specialists and was told that he would need a cochlear implant. However, he chose not to have an implant because he didn’t want to lose his connection with music. He has read about patients complaining of sounds becoming too robotic once they got the implant on. Of course hearing robotic sounds is better than hearing nothing at all, but he decided that it simply wouldn’t do for him; thus, he opted to look for other solutions.
Search for a Cure
New hearing technologies have been developed over the years, with some being marketed as modern hearing aids and some even developed to be compatible with smartphones. Few promises to be a complete cure for hearing loss, though.
Zimmerman knew from his research that currently available treatments for loss of hearing means having to deal with a form of altered reality because it’s not like having regular hearing again. He wanted more than just to regain his hearing. What he wanted was recover his access to the rich world of sounds he was used to having.
Hearing Loss Clinical Trial
Enter the clinical trial by Dr. Lawrence Lustig. His Novartis-sponsored clinical trial is all about finding out if the gene therapy he developed would also work on humans, but there’s a catch – it involves being injected with a virus!
Would you let someone inject a virus to your ears to cure hearing loss? Sounds like an out of this world idea, right?
Well, the gene therapy works by being injected in your inner ear with a harmless virus that has been altered to carry a gene essential to the development of sound-sensing hair cells in your cochlea. The theory is that the gene will then stimulate the growth of new hair cells which will then restore some or all of your hearing.
Of course the gene therapy would be better than an implant if this works as planned. Instead of having a device let you hear again, this treatment works with your body to reproduce what you’ve lost or damaged.
More Exciting News to be Thankful for!
Dr. Lustig’s gene therapy would benefit patients who have lost their hearing from using ototoxic drugs or from being exposed to years of loud noise and/or music like composer Jay Alan Zimmerman. But how about those who have genetic hearing loss? Do they have something to look forward to as well?
Otolaryngologist Jeffrey Holt has been brewing a cure for genetic hearing loss that involves trying to fix broken cells. By introducing the proper DNA sequence to damaged cells, he believes they can be made functional again.
The initial results in his experiment earlier this year showed that the mice he used for his study were able to regain partial hearing after being treated. Isn’t that great? Just think of the possibilities!