Since we began our research funding programme, we’ve progressed in leaps and bounds, with our researchers making some truly groundbreaking discoveries.
Even before we started formally funding research in 1999, our Technology Department was involved with research into hearing aids and cochlear implants, most notably as part of the team that developed the first cochlear implant in the UK.
This timeline highlights just some of the greatest impacts our funding has already had on hearing research and the search for cures.
1999 – We formally launched our biomedical research grant programme, funding research around the world into treatments and cures for hearing loss and tinnitus. We‘ve since funded over 190 projects, to the tune of £20 million.
2000 – Using the results from our very first funded project, we persuaded the NHS to provide digital hearing aids as standard.
2002 – A study funded by us at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in the USA used brain imaging to show that people with tinnitus have increased nerve activity in a part of the brain called the inferior colliculus, which is involved in processing sound.
2004 – Research we funded linked a new type of gene, called a microRNA, to hearing loss (and to an inherited condition for the first time). This work opened up a whole new field of research into hearing loss. Unlike other genes, microRNAs do not produce proteins, but rather control large networks of other genes – targeting these networks could be an effective way of preventing and treating hearing loss.
2005 – In a project we funded at University College London, researchers showed that the inferior colliculus, a part of the brain linked to tinnitus, acts like a ‘volume control’ by increasing nerve activity when incoming signals from the ear are weak and dampening down activity when incoming signals are strong.
2005 – Work we funded in Belgium led to the discovery of the first genes with a link to age-related hearing loss.
2006 –The NHS rolled out the Newborn Hearing Screening Programme across the UK, based on research funded by Deafness Research UK in the 1990s into otoacoustic emissions.
2009 – NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) developed guidelines on cochlear implantation in children, based on findings from an evaluation funded by Deafness Research UK in the 1990s.
2010 – In Australia, researchers we funded showed a direct link between inner ear damage and brain over-activity in animals exposed to loud noise, and that this over-activity correlates with tinnitus-like behaviour. This and other research suggests that tinnitus caused by trauma to the inner ear damages the sensory ‘hair cells’ and nerves that carry signals about sound to the brain. The brain tries to compensate for the loss of signal by increasing nerve activity. It is thought that one of the causes of tinnitus is this over-activity of nerves trying to ‘turn up the volume’ of the missing sound.
2011 – We launched our Translational Research Initiative for Hearing (TRIH), to encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest in the development of new treatments and cures for hearing loss and tinnitus.
2012 – Human stem cells were shown to restore hearing in deafened gerbils, a major breakthrough in the search for a way to restore natural hearing. We funded the research.
2013 – RNID (then known as Action on Hearing Loss) and Deafness Research UK merged; together we aim to increase the profile of hearing research and encourage more investment into it.
2013 – We funded research in Australia which showed that following noise damage to the inner ear, changes in the sound-processing brain pathways which cause tinnitus can lead to it being maintained long after the initial damage to the ear. Researchers now believe that there are two stages to the development of tinnitus: an initial phase that is dependent on altered signalling to the brain from the inner ear, and a second phase where tinnitus becomes fully established within the brain. The researchers we funded also showed that giving a test drug called furosemide to animals following exposure to loud noise blocks damaging signals from reaching the brain and prevents tinnitus-related brain over-activity and tinnitus-like behaviours.
2014 – We funded researchers working in Belgium and the UK to develop a new genetic test for hearing loss using state-of-the-art techniques, allowing a large number of deafness-causing genes to be screened simultaneously. This greatly increases the chances of identifying the genetic cause of a person’s hearing loss.
2016 – The first ever gene to be linked to the middle ear condition, otosclerosis, was identified by researchers we funded at University College London. This is the first step on the road towards an effective treatment.
2017 – Research we supported at the Indiana University School of Medicine led to the development of a new method of growing human inner ear tissue from stem cells. The new method involves growing the cells in 3D structures, rather than as a flat layer on the surface of a culture dish. This creates an environment for the cells that is closer to what occurs in the body. This new model system will be an important part of discovering and developing new treatments to protect and regenerate hair cells.
2018 – We funded research at the University of Manchester to develop a simple test that could be used ‘at the bedside’ to rapidly identify premature babies at risk of hearing loss if given aminoglycoside antibiotics. The research team secured £900K follow-on funding to evaluate the test in hospital settings. The test is currently undergoing clinical testing in hospitals in Manchester and Liverpool.
If successful, the technology could be implemented in neonatal units across the country to avoid the 200 cases per year of aminoglycoside-induced hearing loss.
2019 – Research we supported at University College London formed part of the evidence base that convinced NICE to relax the clinical criteria determining who is eligible to receive cochlear implants. This means that nearly 900 more children and adults who are severely or profoundly deaf will be eligible to receive cochlear implants through the NHS each year.
2019 – Our funding helped researchers at King’s College London to identify 44 new genes linked to age-related hearing loss. The researchers made use of data from the UK Biobank (which tracks different health characteristics in 500,000 people aged between 40 and 69 over time) to find these new genes. The discovery of these genes provides vital clues to developing treatments to slow the onset of, or treat, hearing loss.
2020 – Our funding supported researchers at UCL who discovered sets of ‘regulatory’ genes which are needed to maintain healthy hearing. The finding, made in fruit flies, could potentially lead to treatments for age-related hearing loss in people.