We fund research to find ways to restore hearing and to improve medical devices to help people hear better.
Our research goals
Most hearing loss is caused by damage to part of your inner ear, called the cochlea. In the cochlea, sensory hair cells and auditory nerve cells detect sound and carry signals from the ear to the brain – which allows you to hear.
When these cells are damaged, you can’t regrow them, which causes hearing loss. This can happen as you grow older, or if you are exposed to very loud noise, for example. There are currently no treatments that can help regrow these cells once they’re lost. But our research can change that.
We fund research to:
- identify ways to turn stem cells – which can turn into many different cell types – into these lost hearing cells
- find out how to change the action of certain genes in the cochlea to create new cells or change how existing cells work – known as gene therapy
- develop drugs that drive the production of new cells in the cochlea
- improve medical devices people use now, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids
What we’re funding now
Using light to improve cochlear implants
- Professor Rachael Richardson
- Bionics Institute, Melbourne, Australia
If you are profoundly deaf, a cochlear implant can restore a sensation of hearing by working in place of the hair cells that have been lost. It generates electrical signals that activate the auditory nerve cells which carry signals to the brain, allowing you to hear. But it can still be difficult to hear in some situations, especially when there is a lot of background noise.
Professor Richardson is working to improve cochlear implants by using light, instead of electrical signals, to activate the hearing nerve cells. This could help people with implants hear with a much better and more natural quality of sound.
In 2012, our stem cell research led to a major breakthrough in the search to find a way to restore natural hearing. Thanks to your help and support, we were able to fund research where human stem cells restored hearing in gerbils.
The study was led by Professor Marcelo Rivolta at the University of Sheffield. Auditory nerve cells that were damaged in gerbils were regrown using stem cells, which can turn into many different types of cell.
Auditory nerve cells carry signals from the ear to the brain, which allows you to hear. When the stem cells were placed into the gerbils’ inner ear, they replaced the damaged cells and restored the gerbils’ hearing.
This encouraging research is a major step forward and paves the way to developing treatments in this field. Professor Rivolta is now working to develop these findings into a stem cell treatment for hearing loss. The University of Sheffield has set up a company, Rinri Therapeutics, to develop these treatments and take them towards testing in the clinic.