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Biotech companies are developing drugs to fight hearing loss

Jan. 11, 2018

If you are a baby boomer with damaged hearing due to too many live concerts or too loud dorm-room stereos, help may be on the way. Robert Weisman in The Boston Globe writes that companies are developing “…treatments that improve upon the expensive and often limited-value hearing aids and surgical implants that have been around for decades.”

At least a half dozen biotech firms, he writes, are developing drugs that could represent potential breakthroughs in hearing-loss treatment.

Dr. Bradley Welling, a neurotologic surgeon at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, cites World Health Organization estimates that hearing loss affects nearly 50 million Americans and about 360 million people worldwide.

Weisman quotes Welling as saying, “It would be wonderful if we could restore the inner ear to its native condition by targeting specific cells with the right treatment. We’re getting closer, and the tools are improving all the time.”

Two-year-old startup Frequency Therapeutics Inc., reports Weisman, is trying to activate progenitor cells that can repair damage in the spiral cavity of the inner ear by generating new hair cells. The company has raised $32 million to back its effort. Weisman quotes Frequency chief executive David Lucchino as saying, “We’re figuring out how to hot-wire the hair cells in the inner ear that die off during a lifetime of being exposed to noise.”

Another company working on the problem is Decibel Therapeutics Inc., which was founded in 2015 and has raised almost $57 million. Weisman quotes chief executive Steven Holtzman as saying, “We’re at the point now where we can crack open the biology. We have the audacity to believe that we’re going to build the soup-to-nuts hearing loss company.”

Companies ranging from Frequency and Decibel to Novartis AG are experimenting with a range of approaches including regenerative medicine, RNA interference, and one-time gene therapy treatments, Weisman writes, adding, “All face regulatory hurdles, and company executives won’t speculate how soon they might be on the market.”

He quotes Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, as saying, “Right now in this space there’s a lot of innovation. If they come up with something that can cure or prevent hearing loss, we’re all for it.”

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