Researchers at USC and Harvard have developed a new approach to repair cells deep inside the ear a potential remedy that could restore hearing for millions of elderly people and others who suffer hearing loss.
The lab study demonstrates a novel way for a drug to zero in on damaged nerves and cells inside the ear. It's a potential remedy for a problem that afflicts two-thirds of people over 70 years and 17 percent of all adults in the United States.
There are caveats. The research was conducted on animal tissues in a petri dish. It has not yet been tested in living animals or humans. Yet, the researchers are hopeful given the similarities of cells and mechanisms involved. McKenna says since the technique works in the laboratory, the findings provide "strong preliminary evidence" it could work in living creatures. They are already planning the next phase involving animals and hearing loss.
The study breaks new ground because researchers developed a novel drug-delivery method. Specifically, it targets the cochlea, a snail-like structure in the inner ear where sensitive cells convey sound to the brain. Hearing loss occurs due to aging, working with noisy machines and too many loud concerts. Over time, hair-like sensory cells and bundles of neurons that transmit their vibrations break down, as do ribbon-like synapses, which connect the cells.
The researchers designed a molecule combining 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, which mimics a protein critical for development and function of the nervous system, and bisphosphonate, a type of drug that sticks to bones. The pairing of the two delivered the breakthrough solution, the researchers said, as neurons responded to the molecule, regenerating synapses in mouse ear tissue that led to repair of the hair cells and neurons, which are essential to hearing.