In pursuit of a pill to prevent hearing loss

If I were to ask you what the number one occupational and environmental hazard is, what would you say?

Would you believe it’s noise? It’s true. Hearing loss caused by excessive exposure to loud noise - called noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL - is one of the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, second only to hearing loss caused by aging. To date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve a drug that can prevent hearing loss from either of these sources or any other source, for that matter.

For more than 17 years, I’ve worked to find practical applications of my research on hearing loss caused by noise and aging, as well as on tinnitus, a perceived ringing, roaring, or buzzing in the ears that can be chronic to the point of being debilitating for some people. Working with Gateway Biotechnology, Inc., a company I co-founded with two ear, nose, and throat doctors, my group was the first to discover a family of anti-epileptic drugs able to prevent NIHL in mice, and we have obtained FDA approval to conduct clinical studies with these drugs in people. Already, the company has received three Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to re-purpose these drugs for use against NIHL.

There’s a problem, however: a medical doctor is needed to prescribe anti-epileptic drugs, and many people often visit audiologists instead of medical doctors for the treatment of hearing loss. To address this issue, we recently received a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health for the development of a new product that prevents hearing loss caused by common cancer drugs. Based on a Chinese herb that blocks the same types of calcium channels as the anti-epileptic drugs, the product will be categorized as a nutraceutical—a dietary supplement or food additive that provides health benefits. In this way, the product developed by our company will be able to provide patients access to help without requiring a prescription.

Our goal? To develop a nutraceutical product for better hearing this year. If you’d like to learn more about our research, visit the company’s website (GatewayBiotechnology.com) and follow this blog for updates.