“If you are a venture capitalist,” Franck said, “you get very excited about those numbers.” But helping people who have experienced hearing loss “is not as easy as selling them an app or a pair of headphones,” he added. “It’s more complicated than that.”
One potential breakthrough may come from a handful of drugs currently being tested to combat hair-cell damage from ototoxic drugs. Scores of medications used to treat everything from infections to cancer to heart disease can kill off these cells. Currently, Boston-based Decibel Therapeutics has two drugs to counteract these side effects—small molecules administered via transtympanic injection or taken orally—in Phase I clinical trials.
“Cisplatin and aminoglycoside antibiotics are powerful drugs, which unfortunately often come at the expense of the delicate cells in the inner ear that are necessary for hearing and balance,” Decibel’s chief medical officer, Peter Weber, wrote in an email. “We hope to change the equation for clinicians and patients by preventing these medications from damaging the inner ear, without interfering with the lifesaving efficacy that they are known for.”
In Woburn, Massachusetts, Frequency Therapeutics has begun Phase I and II trials with a potentially broader solution. The company’s regeneration platform offers hope for those with NIHL, presbycusis, and other forms of hearing loss. Its process involves progenitor-cell activation—in essence, coaxing cells back to their development phase to get them to generate more hair cells.
Read: What my hearing aid taught me about the future of wearables
“I’m a drug developer by trade and have been in the field for about 30 years, and I’ve been pretty bearish on regenerative therapies,” said Carl LeBel, the chief development officer at Frequency Therapeutics. But now, he says, the company can stimulate stem cells in the ear, which in turn regenerate the more specialized sensory cells. “Up until today, no one has been able to crack the nut about how we can regenerate that function,” LeBel said. “That’s why we are so enthusiastic about our technology.”
LeBel sees the company’s platform as potentially applicable to multiple sclerosis, alopecia, muscle regeneration, and a wide swath of autoimmune diseases. But others caution against looking for miracles in the coming months. “For my entire career, they’ve been five years away,” Franck said.
“Something has happened where I do believe that, after these 20 some years I have been in the profession, they are closer,” he added. “But they always seem like they’re right over the horizon.”
While drug developers are focused on regeneration, hearing-aid manufacturers are aiming to make their devices as indispensable as smartphones—not just for those with hearing impairments, but for everyone. Other functions, beyond improving hearing, “would make the non-hearing-aid person jealous that they don’t have one,” said Bill Facteau, the president and CEO of the California-based hearing-aid developer Earlens. “That is going to be the game changer.”