Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A Drug Treatment for Hearing Loss

New approach promotes growth of sound-detecting hair cells.

  • by Anne Trafton
  • April 25, 2017
  • Pictured on right, clonal colonies of cochlear progenitor cells.

Within the inner ear, thousands of hair cells detect sound waves and translate them into nerve signals that allow us to hear speech, music, and other everyday sounds. Damage to these cells is one of the leading causes of hearing loss, which affects 48 million Americans.

Each of us is born with about 15,000 hair cells per ear, but noise exposure, aging, and some antibiotics can cause them fatal harm. Humans, unlike some other animals, don’t regenerate the cells when that happens. However, the inner ear does contain progenitor cells that can be induced to multiply and turn into hair cells with a certain combination of drugs, according to researchers at MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

“Hearing loss is a real problem as people get older. It’s very much of an unmet need, and this is an entirely new approach,” says Institute Professor Robert Langer, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and one of the senior authors of the study, which appeared in Cell Reports.

This story is part of the May/June 2017 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

To explore possible regeneration techniques, Langer worked with Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor of medicine at BWH and Harvard Medical School, and Albert Edge, a Harvard professor of otolaryngology based at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

The researchers exposed progenitor cells from a mouse cochlea, grown in a lab dish, to molecules that stimulate a cell signaling pathway known as Wnt, which makes the cells multiply rapidly. At the same time, to prevent the cells from differentiating too soon, the researchers exposed the cells to molecules that activate another signaling pathway, known as Notch. Their technique led to 2,000 times more hair cell progenitors than previous approaches.

Inspired by creatures in nature that exhibit tissue regeneration, the team looked to the highly regenerative mammalian intestine, which turns over every four to five days. “We uncovered a small-­molecule approach to control this process and found it worked for many tissues, including the inner ear, to produce large populations of functional sensory hair cells,” says Karp.

Some of the researchers have started a company called Frequency Therapeutics, which has licensed the MIT/BWH technology and plans to begin testing it in human patients within 18 months.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.