By Ralph Holme
The NHS is helping people with hearing loss, deafness and tinnitus every day. It provides state of the art hearing aids and cutting edge cochlear implants, it offers diagnostic tests able to identify babies with a hearing loss in the first few days of life and pinpoint the genetic cause of some types of hearing loss.
These benefits are the result of research much of which is funded by charities such as Action on Hearing Loss where I lead its biomedical research work. Action on Hearing Loss runs the world’s largest donor-supported hearing research programme, funding medical breakthroughs for 20 years. We are proud to work hand in hand with the NHS and here are just a few examples of how over the years our research has helped the NHS transform the lives of people with hearing loss.
We played a key role in the development of the Oto-Acoustic Emissions (OAE) test, which enables babies with a hearing loss to be identified at birth. This is important as it ensures that deaf children get the help they need straight away. The test was developed following the discovery that healthy ears produce an ‘echo’ in response to incoming sounds. Because the test can be performed quickly and easily using a tiny probe in the ear, it is a great screening tool suitable for new-born babies – they don’t even need to be awake! We supported the original laboratory research at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research and the University of Southampton in the early 1990s. We also funded the clinical studies that led to the development of this technology and the publication of the guidelines for hospitals to use the test. The test has now been introduced throughout the NHS ensuring that deaf children receive the support they need.
Another test that we helped develop is the genetic test to identify some of the causes of deafness. Most people do not know why they or their child have a hearing loss. For some it may not matter, but many do want to know the cause. Parents of a deaf child may want to know if they are likely to have more deaf children, or whether their child’s hearing loss will get worse over time or is part of a syndrome like Usher’s syndrome. As new treatments emerge, understanding the exact cause of someone’s hearing loss will allow the right treatment to be given to the right person.
Any one of over 100 genes can cause hearing loss. Testing all of these genes to make an accurate diagnosis used to be prohibitively time consuming and expensive. In practice only one or two of the more common genes would be tested in the clinic. But that has now all changed thanks to research we funded at the University of Antwerp and UCL’s Institute of Child Health. We helped develop a new way of testing deafness genes that now allows 95 genes to be tested all at the same time and for the same price as it used to cost to test just one or two genes using the old technology. The new genetic test is now available through the NHS benefiting people across the country.
But what does the future of hearing research hold? We continue to fund research around the world to accelerate the development of new treatments for all types of hearing loss. Amazing progress is being made. There are already drug treatments being clinically tested that we hope will be able to reduce hearing loss caused by the damaging effects of noise and the ototoxic side effects of some life-saving medication, such as cisplatin, used to treat cancer, and aminoglycosides, used to fight serious bacterial infections. Drug and gene therapies to trigger the regeneration of the sound-detecting sensory cells within the cochlea are also being clinically tested. One of these clinical trials is currently taking place at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital (UCLH NHS Foundation Trust) in London. Scientists we are funding continue to make discoveries that we hope will lead to treatments for other types of hearing loss such as age-related hearing loss and of course tinnitus.
Over the last 70 years the options available to the NHS to treat hearing loss have largely been limited to hearing aids and cochlear implants. We are now entering a new exciting era in which we will see the NHS start using drug, gene and cell therapies to more effectively treat hearing loss and tinnitus. Our research projects are funded by donations and thanks to your support we hope that many more people will be able to benefit from our scientific discoveries.
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