Through our Flexi Grants, we fund small-scale activities to boost the hearing research field, supporting researchers to carry out activities that they wouldn’t otherwise get funding for. This might involve providing funding to support researchers to build new collaborations, or to open up a completely new area of research. We also support researchers to gain valuable new technical skills, and to carry out pilot studies to increase their chance of securing larger grants from other funders.
We awarded our latest round of Flexi Grants earlier this year – and here are some of the new projects we’re supporting:
Developing ways to deliver medicines effectively to the inner ear
One of the issues with developing treatments for hearing loss, whether those treatments are drug-, cell- or gene-based, is getting them into the inner ear where they need to be. The inner ear is hidden away from the rest of the body behind a barrier of cells called the blood-labyrinth barrier (the ‘labyrinth’ is the bony capsule that surrounds the inner ear). Drugs taken orally or given by injection to the bloodstream will not easily be able to cross this barrier and enter the inner ear, and so the levels of drug that reach the inner ear will be low. Treatments can be delivered directly to the inner ear, but they will have to cross both the eardrum (this can be done by injection) and the round window (a membrane, or layer of cells, that separates the middle ear from the inner ear). This can’t be done by injection in a person, and so the treatment will have to be able to cross this second barrier using a different process. For each potential treatment developed, this problem has to be solved, and the most appropriate delivery process has to be determined.
In this project, researchers based at the UCL Ear Institute want to develop a protocol that can be used to deliver treatments (especially drugs) to the inner ear in people, so that new treatments for hearing loss (or tinnitus) can be tested and developed to be as effective as possible. The Flexi Grant will provide funding to support this research and to cover the cost of a short visit to a research group in the US, who are the world-leading experts in drug delivery to the inner ear. They will train the grant-holder in the techniques they’ve developed, so this grant will also support the transfer of research skills into the UK, where they are not currently present.
This research could therefore have a significant impact on the development of hearing loss treatments, by developing ways to ensure that new treatments get into the inner ear, where they can most effectively work to restore hearing or prevent further hearing loss.
Using virtual reality to improve hearing tests
Standard hearing tests use ‘pure tone audiometry’, which measures the quietest sound that a person can hear at a range of frequencies (pitches) of sound. This gives useful information as to the extent of someone’s hearing loss, and can be used to programme hearing aids, but it doesn’t fully assess the hearing difficulties that a person is having. In particular, it doesn’t measure how well a person can hear speech or other sounds against a noisy background. It also gives no indication of how well someone can hear in more realistic listening, real-world, scenarios.
In this project, the researchers will trial the use of virtual reality as a way of more fully assessing children’s hearing abilities. They will develop a virtual reality game where a child’s ability to correctly identify target words against real-world fluctuating background noise can be measured. Wearing a virtual reality headset, children will listen to and watch a game character say target sentences, which they have to repeat back while ignoring what is happening in the background, including other characters and sources of noise. The researchers believe that this will give a more realistic idea of how well a child can hear in everyday life.
They will also test whether cheaper, commercially-available virtual reality headsets produce similar results to the more expensive, laboratory-standard virtual reality headset they are currently using. This is important for being able to use these tests in the clinic – hospitals and audiology units often have restricted funding, so the uptake of virtual reality hearing testing will be increased if the equipment needed is cheaper.
The funding from this Flexi Grant will allow the researchers to obtain pilot data so that they can go on to apply for more substantial funding to take the work forward.
Other Flexi Grant activities
We’re also funding Flexi Grants to investigate a new approach to gene therapy to treat hearing loss, to study how the inner ear maintains its ability to send electrical signals to the brain (something known as the ‘endocochlear potential’), and to use machine learning to try to improve how well hearing aids work in noisy backgrounds.
We hope that these projects will help the researchers to develop their programmes of work, and lead to new discoveries that could one day turn into treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.
Find out more
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You can find out more about the research we’re funding in our biomedical research section.
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