University College London (UCL) and University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCH) researchers have begun to test whether a new drug can improve hearing in patients with hearing loss, after completing a study on the safety and tolerability of the drug in 15 patients.

There are currently no drugs available that treat hearing loss. At present, patients have to opt for hearing aids or cochlear implants, which don’t address the root cause of hearing loss.

Damage to the sensory hair cells in the cochlea – known as sensorineural hearing loss – is a major cause of hearing loss acquired later in life: 90 per cent of cases of hearing loss are sensorineural. Overall, one-in-six people in the UK – and around half a billion people worldwide and over 360 million people worldwide – have hearing loss.

Hair cell loss has long been thought to be irreversible, but various earlier studies in animals indicate that functioning inner ear sensory hair cells may be regenerated through the use of a small molecule substance called a gamma-secretase inhibitor.

And now, researchers at the UCL Ear Institute and UCLH’s Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital (RNTNEH) are leading a trial – being undertaken by the REGAIN (Regeneration of inner ear hair cells with gamma-secretase inhibitors) consortium made up of partners in the Netherlands, UK, Greece, Germany, and Denmark – to test a drug in patients with hearing loss based on these studies.

Professor Anne Schilder, Director of evidENT at the UCL Ear Institute and NIHR Research Professor, who is supported by the National Institute for Health Research UCLH Biomedical Research Centre and is leading the design and delivery of the REGAIN clinical trial, said, ‘We are proud to be part of the REGAIN consortium and to be leading on translating this scientific breakthrough into a treatment that may improve people’s hearing and lives.’

For phase one of the REGAIN trial, which took place throughout 2018, the clinical research team at RNTNEH gave the drug via injections to the ear to 15 patients with mild-to-moderate sensorineural hearing loss, to test the safety and tolerability of the drug.

Researchers at UCL and UCLH – along with sites in Germany and Greece – are now moving on to the next stage of the REGAIN clinical trial: a phase two study which will test the efficacy of the drug in 40 adults with mild-to-moderate adult on-set sensorineural hearing loss.