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      Kick starting new research

      Our Flexi grant helps researchers kick start new lines of research. We’re awarding funding to three new projects that could lead to new diagnostic tools, a gene therapy for a specific type of inherited deafness and pave the way for clinical trials of treatments to prevent hearing loss caused by the anti-cancer drug cisplatin. Our Executive Director of Research, Dr Ralph Holme, tells us more.

      By: Dr Ralph Holme | 11 April 2019

      It can be hard for research groups to embark on a new line of research or test a new idea that may open the door to a whole new approach to finding treatments for hearing loss or tinnitus. The difficulty is that without some initial data to indicate that the line of research is likely to work it is hard for researchers to secure the funding they need. That is where Action on Hearing Loss’ Flexi grant comes in. This is a grant that we award to universities or companies to allow their researchers to generate the pilot data they will need to secure bigger grants to continue the research.

      Making an Impact

      Over the last 10 years we have funded nearly 100 pilot projects with our Flexi grant and are making a real impact. For example, we helped to kick started a project in Manchester to develop of a point of care diagnostic test to identify children at risk of aminoglycoside-induced hearing loss. This particular type of antibiotic is life-saving, but can leave people with a permanent hearing loss. Interestingly, there is a gene mutation carried by around 1 in 500 people that makes them much more susceptible to hearing damage caused by aminoglycosides. Our funding helped to get the project off the ground and generate the evidence the team needed to secure £900K of follow-on funding from the National Institute for Health Research to continue the development of this diagnostic device and test it in hospitals.

      Our funding has also helped to kick start the formation new companies focussed on developing treatments for hearing problems. In 2013, we awarded a small Flexi grant to a group of researchers at University of Maryland to generate pilot data into a new approach to use magnetic force to push tiny iron beads, which can be linked to medicines, into the cochlea. Finding safe and efficient ways of getting therapeutics into the ear where they are needed is going to be important. On the back of promising results we then followed-up our initial funding with a larger 3 year grant worth £300K helping them to establish a company called Otomagnetics to develop the technology. Today the company is thriving having raised almost $9M to support the development of their drug delivery technology.

      What next?

      Last month we awarded Flexi grants to support 3 new projects.
      One aims to explore a completely new way of detecting the cause of a particular type of hearing loss. Lipids are an important component of all cells in our body. There are many different types. Using cutting edge technology it is possible to quantify which lipids are present and at what levels at a given time and in a specific tissue. We will be funding researchers at Kings College London to see if they can find a specific lipid profile or signature that correlates with a certain type of hearing loss. They will look at how lipids in the inner ear change with different types of hearing loss. If they can also detect these changes in the blood then in the future it might be possible to predict the type of hearing defect from a simple blood test!

      Another project will support the development of a gene therapy for a specific type of dominantly inherited deafness. If hearing loss is dominantly inherited it means hearing loss will arise if there is a change in just one copy of the gene responsible – we carry two copies of most genes. The gene therapy being developed aims to silence the faulty copy. It will be important to show that the therapy doesn’t inadvertently also silence the working version of the gene and to show it works on human genes. To test this we will be providing funding to allow the researchers to engineer mice in which the mouse version of the deafness gene has been replaced with either a working human version or the faulty human version. The research team will then be able test whether their approach works.

      Finally, we will be supporting a project in London to help prepare for clinical trials of treatments to protect hearing from the toxic side-effects of cisplatin. Cisplatin is an anti-cancer drug that can leave cancer survivors with permanent hearing loss. To design clinical trials of drugs to prevent hearing loss we will need base line data collected from patients undergoing chemotherapy. The project will collect hearing data before treatment and then 3 months afterwards and correlate changes in hearing with dosage of cisplatin, and the characteristics of the patient and cancer being treated. They will also monitor changes in the level of a specific protein in the blood that may serve as a marker of cisplatin damage to the inner ear.

      Find out more 

      We depend on your donations so we can fund the best hearing and tinnitus research around the world. Donate today and help us continue our vital work into hearing treatments, so that people can live life to the full again.

      You can find out more about the research we’re funding in our biomedical research section.

      If you’re interested in finding out more about our research, sign up to receive our Soundbite newsletter. It’s a monthly email, filled with the latest news about hearing and tinnitus research.

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      We campaign for changes that make life better for people who are confronting deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss.

      Our ears are our organs of hearing and balance. They have three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear.