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      Learning more about tinnitus – flexible funding for hearing research

      Our Flexi Grant scheme provides small grants to researchers around the world, to support a variety of activities that benefit the research field and people with hearing loss or tinnitus. Tracey Pollard, from our Biomedical Research team, tells us more.

      By: Dr Tracey Pollard | 07 September 2017

      Through our Flexi Grants, we fund small-scale activities to boost the hearing research field. We support researchers to carry out activities that they’d otherwise struggle to find funding for. This might involve providing funding to carry out a pilot study that will increase their chances of securing larger grants from other funders. Or a grant could support the development of a new collaboration, open up a new area of research, or help researchers to gain valuable new skills.

      We awarded our latest round of Flexi Grants last month – and here is one of the new projects we’re supporting:

      A new way to measure and monitor tinnitus in people?

      Tinnitus is the medical term for any noise, such as ringing, hissing or roaring, that is heard in one ear, both ears, or in the head, which has no external source. There is currently no effective treatment for tinnitus, only ways to manage it – at least in part, this is because we don’t fully understand the biological changes that lead to tinnitus.

      Researchers are increasingly beginning to recognise that tinnitus involves changes in more than just the auditory (hearing) system. In fact, it is likely to be generated by a complex network of changes involving not only the auditory system but also brain systems related to memory, emotion and stress. In addition, every person with tinnitus has a unique ‘tinnitus profile’ – their tinnitus, and their experience of it, is unlike anyone else’s. This may explain why some people do well with managing their tinnitus using current methods, while for others it remains bothersome. This all makes it highly likely that there won’t be one treatment for tinnitus that works for everyone – instead, we will need a range of options. We need to better understand the biological processes involved in tinnitus so that new, effective treatments can be developed.

      Metabolomics is the study of small molecules, known as metabolites, within cells, tissues or organisms. Metabolites are the molecules involved in all of the biological processes going on within a cell, or a tissue, and their levels (as well as their presence or absence) changes at different times and in response to different signals. This makes metabolomics an excellent way to study what happens in cells or tissues during disease, or when someone is taking medication. Metabolomics has previously been used to discover new markers for diagnosis, monitoring and understanding the processes involved in diseases and drug treatments in many areas, such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. So far, it has not been used to study tinnitus. Given its previous success in other conditions, metabolomics may also help us to better understand tinnitus.

      In this project, the researchers, based at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will conduct a pilot ‘proof-of-concept’ study to identify markers of tinnitus using metabolomics. They will study people who have chronic tinnitus in one ear only, that developed after being exposed to damaging levels of loud noise. Volunteers will complete hearing tests, and a number of tests and questionnaires to assess and characterise their tinnitus, and its effects on their emotional state. People without tinnitus, matched by age and sex, will also take part as controls. The researchers will collect blood samples from all volunteers and analyse the metabolites present in each sample, as well as their levels, looking for differences between people with and without tinnitus. They will also correlate any metabolic changes seen in people with tinnitus with their tinnitus-related distress. If their initial study is successful, they hope to extend it to include people with different tinnitus causes and characteristics.

      The researchers hope to be able to identify the metabolic network(s) which specifically relate to noise-induced tinnitus in people. The ultimate aim of their work is to classify people with tinnitus into different categories (called subtypes) based on changes in these metabolic network(s), so that targeted and personalised treatments can be developed and prescribed. They may also provide an objective measure of tinnitus, which is crucial to allow new tinnitus treatments to be tested in the clinic.

      Other Flexi Grant activities

      We’re also funding Flexi Grants to develop a new way to assess bacterial infection in the middle ear, to improve the development and testing of potential new treatments for chronic otitis media, to carry out preliminary experiments in cells to investigate whether gene editing technology could be used to correct mutations in hearing loss-related genes and ultimately restore hearing, and to understand more about age-related hearing loss, and the role of estrogen signalling in its development.

      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, or even cures, for hearing loss and tinnitus.

      Find out more

      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 e-newsletter. It’s a monthly email filled with the latest news about hearing and tinnitus research.

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