While hearing loss can have a whole host of different causes, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that some 50% to 60% of hearing loss in babies is due to a genetic cause, while 25% are due to outside environmental factors, such as infection on complications at birth. This “genetic” hearing loss is often called hereditary hearing loss and usually results in lifelong hearing difficulties that run the gamut from minor hearing loss in one ear to profound deafness.
Although people with hereditary hearing loss experience this hearing loss in different ways, they all have one thing in common: some sort of change to a hearing-related gene in their genetic information. To date, there are hundreds of different hearing loss-related genes that have been identified, with some being much more common than others.
But what if there was a drug that could help individuals with hereditary hearing loss regain some of their hearing abilities? Thanks to researchers at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine, an anti-malarial drug might do just that.
Through a recent study, scientists at CWRU may have identified a potential treatment for hereditary hearing loss using the anti-malarial drug, artemisinin. Since the ability to hear relies heavily on the functionality of proteins in the sensory cells of the inner ear, the researchers decided to focus on drugs that can affect these proteins for the better.
In the inner ear, these proteins must make it to the outer membrane of the sensory cells that help us with hearing and balance. For people with normal hearing, this protein movement happens naturally, but in people with certain kinds of hereditary hearing loss, a gene mutation traps these vital proteins in the ear’s hair cells, preventing them from doing their job.
To test whether artemisinin could help treat these mutated proteins, the researchers genetically engineered some zebrafish so that they would also have the human version of these mutated proteins. After treating the zebrafish with artemisinin, the researchers found that the drug was able to restore some of the functionality of the inner ear’s sensory cells. Ultimately, this helped the zebrafish regain their hearing and balance abilities – a promising sign.
Now that the scientists have seen some impressive results from treating zebrafish hearing loss with artemisinin, they will move on to testing in mice. If they find the same positive results of hearing and balance restoration in mice, they can start to move on to clinical trials in humans.
While this research is still in its beginning stages, its success thus far is great news for patients with hereditary hearing loss and their families. A long-term treatment or even cure for hereditary hearing loss has been a long time coming, and it has the ability to make a huge difference in millions of lives.
Thanks to artemisinin and the hard work of the researchers at Case Western Reserve University, the possibility of a treatment for hereditary hearing loss just might be possible. We can’t wait to see where it goes from here!