Melbourne researchers say they have come up with a treatment using nanoparticles for hearing loss that could potentially replace hearing aids for millions of people worldwide.
The scientists from Melbourne’s Bionics Institute at the University of Melbourne believe they can use nanotechnology to deliver restorative drugs to deep within the ear to sufferers of neural hearing loss.
It is the most common form of deafness, affecting people as they age, or if they’ve been exposed to prolonged periods of loud noise in industries such as music, mining, construction, manufacturing or the military.
Jim Findley is one of millions who could benefit from the research.
When the former US Army infantry officer’s ears started ringing for three days straight, he knew something was seriously wrong.
He had just completed a period of combat in Afghanistan, and he thought the cacophony of sounds on the battlefield — including gunfire, artillery and his comrades shouting at one another — had taken their toll.
“When the action starts, it’s overwhelming to the senses. The light can be blinding, the noise can be deafening, and then everything breaks loose,” he said.
Like many defence force personnel around the world, it was his hearing that was damaged. Permanently.
He has had partial hearing loss in his left ear for about a decade.
The isolation of hearing loss
Lead medical researcher Andrew Wise said the nanoparticle treatment currently being tested an animals would especially help people suffering from sensory hearing loss, which occurs when the nerve connections to the inner ear become damaged.
It is the most common disability in developed nations according to the Bionics Institute, and is on track to affect one billion people worldwide by 2050.
Sufferers wear hearing aids and there is no treatment.
Melbourne’s Epworth Hospital ear, nose and throat surgeon, Sherryl Wagstaff, said hearing loss makes people isolate themselves.
“They don’t want to go out, they don’t want to socialise and as we know there are now links to dementia as a result of it,” Dr Wagstaff said.
She said the potential new treatment could be “earth-shattering”.
Putting a sprinkle into a nanoparticle
The researchers believe restorative drugs can be “loaded” into the nanoparticles, about half a millimetre in diameter and smaller than a cake sprinkle, or a “hundred and thousand”, and delivered to the inner ear.
Associate Professor Wise said the properties of the particles were “remarkable” and he likened then to volcanic rock.
“They’re very porous, and that property enables us to load very high levels of the growth factors (or drugs) into these particles, and then these growth factors come out of the particles quite slowly after many months,” he said.
Although drugs that can repair inner-ear nerve damage are already available, no-one has yet been able to find a way to get them to the inner ear in the quantity required to work.
If animal trials are successful, researchers said the technique could eventually replace hearing aids in millions of people around the world.
“People (who) have problems with hearing, problems with processing sound, information, in challenging environments … where they can hear but have difficulty interpreting speech, that population is probably the target population, at least initially,” Associate Professor Wise said.
The treatment is still a few years away from human trials, but the US Department of Defence is so excited by the prospect it has committed $1.1 million to the research.
Like many defence forces around the world, payouts to servicemen and women who have suffered hearing loss due to exposure to noise make-up the majority of compensation payouts.
For veteran Jim Findley, it offers new hope.
“Mate, it would be brilliant,” he said with a smile.
“What a boon for soldiers, but not only soldiers … construction workers, people who work in the music industry. There are a tremendous number of people who could benefit from this.”