By Christopher Geissler, Ph.D.
Half of all inner ear disorders, which have a negative impact on hearing and/or balance, are caused by genetic mutations. A study published in January 2019 in Nature Communications demonstrates the effectiveness of a gene therapy targeting one specific gene mutation, TMC1 (transmembrane channel-like 1). The research was conducted by Carl A. Nist-Lund in the Harvard Medical School lab of Gwenaëlle S. Géléoc, Ph.D., and Jeffrey R. Holt, Ph.D., with contributions from colleagues including 2017 Emerging Research Grants (ERG) recipient Jennifer Resnik, Ph.D., and her ERG co-principal investigator Daniel B. Polley, Ph.D., both also of Harvard Medical School.
So far, 35 TMC1 mutations have been identified in humans, including several that are responsible for moderate to severe hearing loss, representing between 3 to 8 percent of cases of genetic hearing loss. This TMC1 gene therapy has had an encouraging level of success in mice and may prove capable of addressing similar genetic mutations in humans in the future.
Previous studies targeting this gene were only moderately successful in restoring function in inner hair cells, with little or no success in outer hair cells. Both types of hair cell are necessary for hearing.
The team decided to look at improving the mechanism that encodes TCM1 in affected mice, using a synthetic delivery vehicle they hoped would be more effective than the conventional one used in previous studies. In mice with this TCM1 mutation, hair cells begin to die when the mouse reaches 4 weeks of age. The treated mice in this study showed improved rates of survival in both inner and outer hair cells.
Most importantly, the improvement in hearing in the mice that received this intervention occurred primarily in the lower frequencies. Human speech is at the low to mid frequency range of the auditory spectrum, so if future human trials are able to replicate the success of this study, speech perception may improve.
The study additionally provided evidence of improved responses in the brain of the treated mice. This indicates that treatment of the cochlea by injection had knock-on effects in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that plays an important role in hearing.
Finally, the team recorded improved balance function in the mice that received the gene therapy. While only very young mice experienced better hearing, even older mice showed improvement in balance. The team writes that this improvement in balance function in mature mice may contribute to eventually developing a way to treat balance disorders in humans.
Jennifer Resnik, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Polley Lab, part of the Eaton Peabody Laboratories, Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School. Her 2017 Emerging Research Grant was generously funded by Hyperacusis Research Ltd. Christopher Geissler, Ph.D., is HHF’s director of program and research support.
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