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Research into our genes is bringing us closer to hearing loss treatments

Hearing loss affects 1 in 5 UK adults, and yet there are currently no treatments that can restore hearing or prevent it from getting worse. 

One person who is seeking to change this is Professor Karen Steel, who discussed the biological causes of hearing loss at the 2023 Hearing Therapeutics Summit

Karen’s work into the genetics of deafness 

Throughout her research career, Professor Karen Steel and her team have identified dozens of genes that are involved in hearing loss, which has helped increase our understanding of the role of those genes in hearing. Read more about her work

How RNID has worked with Karen 

We’ve funded research projects in Karen’s lab since 2004, as well as supporting early-career researchers in her lab through PhD studentships and fellowships. 

This includes research that linked a new type of gene, called a microRNA, to hearing loss – and to an inherited condition – for the first time. This work has gone on to open up a whole new field of research into hearing loss.

Unlike other genes, microRNAs do not produce proteins, but rather control large networks of other genes – and targeting these networks could be an effective way of preventing and treating hearing loss. 

As well as this, we’ve funded Karen to understand how several other genes, linked to hearing loss in people, are involved in hearing. We hope that this research will ultimately lead to the development of treatments that can target these genes in the ear or brain and protect or restore hearing.  

Recent research developments 

Karen’s team have recently celebrated a huge milestone, after successfully reversing hearing loss in young mice. The researchers say this study suggests that hearing loss in humans resulting from reduced gene activity may be reversible.  Karen said:

“We are building a solid grounding of understanding of the molecular and pathological basis of progressive hearing loss. In one type of pathology in a hearing-impaired mouse, we have provided evidence that hearing loss can even be reversed if treated early enough. We hope that this will be the tipping point that persuades industry to invest in developing new drug-based treatments. 

“I also hope that the next steps of our research will lead to diagnostics and treatments becoming available for people with progressive hearing loss, and that hearing loss will no longer be regarded as an inevitable part of growing older.” 

We’re currently funding Karen to investigate if it is possible to reverse hearing loss in adult mice with progressive hearing loss that is similar to age-related hearing loss in people. If successful, this will increase confidence that we will be able to find treatments that can reverse the hearing loss that happens with age.

We are incredibly grateful to our friends at the Exilarch’s Foundation, who have kindly agreed to fund this incredible research in its entirety.

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

“Professor Karen Steel’s work, which RNID have funded for almost twenty years, has made a huge contribution to hearing research; shaping and increasing our understanding of the role of genes in hearing and opening up a whole new field of study.

“We’re incredibly excited about Karen’s current research, which could have big implications for people with age-related hearing loss, and we hope that this will ultimately lead to treatments to restore hearing.”

The Hearing Therapeutics Summit took place on Saturday 2 September with more than 100 people coming together to discuss bringing new treatments to patients, challenges in hearing therapeutics development and bridging the gap between academia and industry. 

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 by donating to RNID today.
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