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      Defining the genetic basis of age-related hearing loss

      This is a PhD studentship being carried out by Helena Wells in the laboratory of Dr Frances Williams at King’s College London. Helena started work on the project in October 2016 and will finish in September 2019.

      This project will identify new genes linked to age-related hearing loss, and may uncover the processes involved: the first step towards discovering treatments.

      Background

      Age-related hearing loss is a significant health and social problem, affecting over 40% of people over the age of 65.

      Although little is known about what causes it, we think that various environmental and genetic factors are involved. The genetics of age-related hearing loss is a fairly new research area – so far, only a small number of genes have been linked to it. One reason for this is the lack of really large population studies that can provide both hearing and genetic data, to allow the two to be linked.

      Researchers in Dr Williams' lab at King's have carried out two genome-wide association studies (GWAS) into hearing, using samples from across Europe. GWAS is a relatively new way for scientists to identify genes involved in human disease; it searches for small changes in DNA that occur more frequently in people with a particular disease than in people without the disease, normally looking at hundreds or thousands of these changes at a time.

      This data can then be used to pinpoint genes that may contribute to a person’s risk of developing a certain disease. The King's researchers have already identified two new genes associated with hearing loss, using this technique.

      We're funding Helena to study 150,000 subjects from the UK Biobank study – a large, long-term study that's investigating how genetics and environmental 'exposures' (including nutrition, lifestyle, medications etc.) contribute to the development of disease.

      UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people, aged between 40 and 69, from across the UK. They have provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, given detailed lifestyle information, and agreed to have their health followed. Over many years, this will build into a powerful resource to help researchers discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not.

      Helena's study will be substantially larger than the lab’s previous two studies. It's highly likely to find and confirm many more of the numerous genes that are associated with age-related hearing loss.

      Project aims

      Helena aims to identify new genes associated with age-related hearing loss by performing by far the largest genetic association study to date. She'll conduct separate women- and men-only analyses, to examine the age of onset (which is thought to be delayed in women). Helena will study the genes she identifies in more detail, to find out what they do.

      Expected impact

      The very considerable sample size means that we're almost certain to identify new genes associated with hearing loss. This studying of them in detail will lead to a much-improved understanding of the processes involved. Once we fully understand the biology of hearing and hearing loss, we can devise targeted therapies.