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RNID funded research leads to new NHS test to identify babies at risk of hearing loss

A new genetic test that can help protect newborn babies from hearing loss has been approved for use in NHS hospitals.

RNID helped kick start this breakthrough, thanks to donations from our amazing supporters which helped fund a pilot project at the University of Manchester back in 2016.

What does the new test do?

Newborn babies, especially premature babies, are particularly vulnerable to developing life-threatening infections, such as sepsis, as their immune system isn’t fully developed. 

Babies admitted to intensive care with these infections are usually treated with an antibiotic called gentamicin within 1 hour. However, gentamicin is a type of antibiotic (called an aminoglycoside) that can cause hearing loss as a side effect. Several hundred babies each year develop hearing loss because of being treated with gentamicin.  

Around 1 in 500 babies carries a version of a gene that make them especially vulnerable to hearing loss if treated with gentamicin. The new test, made by Genedrive, can analyse babies’ DNA and identify babies with this version of the gene in just under 30 minutes. As these babies are at particular risk of hearing loss from gentamicin, and because the test gives a result within an hour, they can be given a different antibiotic. It has been estimated that the new test could save the hearing of 200 babies in England alone every year.

How does gentamicin damage hearing? 

Gentamicin and other aminoglycosides are highly effective antibiotics and can treat a wide range of bacterial infections. However, they often cause hearing loss as a side effect.  

The drug can enter the cells in the inner ear which detect sound and damage them – this causes permanent hearing loss. While anyone treated with these drugs can develop hearing loss as a side-effect, people with a specific version of a gene called m.1555A>G are at increased risk of damage from these antibiotics.  

Being able to quickly identify these babies so that they can be treated with a different antibiotic will reduce the number of babies who develop hearing loss each year.

Next steps 

We are really pleased that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – which decides which drugs and technologies the NHS uses – has approved the new test for use across the NHS. 

They have also recommended that further evidence should be collected about how well it works and what impact it has on antibiotic use. 

What does RNID think? 

A picture of Ralph Holme, Director of Research and Insight at RNID, smiling at the camera in front of some trees.

Ralph Holme, Director of Research and Insight at RNID, said: 

“RNID is thrilled that this new rapid test, which we helped to kickstart, has been approved by NICE and can now be used to save the hearing of hundreds of babies a year across the UK. 

“This research will make a life changing difference to hundreds of families, protecting the hearing of their new born children in intensive care and preventing them from developing lifelong hearing loss caused by commonly used antibiotics. 

“At RNID, we want a future where the 1 in 6 people in the UK with hearing loss can access treatments and cures, and research is vital to make this happen. This new test is an exciting step forward in the field of hearing research, which wouldn’t have been possible without our supporters.”

Ralph Holme, Director of Research and Insight at RNID

We need your support

Hearing loss research is hugely underfunded. Only 83p is spent on research for each person with hearing loss, compared to £16 spent on research per person living with sight loss. Help us give hope for a better future today. Call our contact centre to donate to RNID today.

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