Most of us know someone affected by hearing loss, but we may not fully appreciate the hardships that lack of hearing can bring. Hearing loss can lead to isolation, frustration, and a debilitating ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. It is also closely correlated with dementia.
The biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics is seeking to reverse hearing loss — not with hearing aids or implants, but with a new kind of regenerative therapy. The company uses small molecules to program progenitor cells, a descendant of stem cells in the inner ear, to create the tiny hair cells that allow us to hear.
Hair cells die off when exposed to loud noises or drugs including certain chemotherapies and antibiotics. Frequency’s drug candidate is designed to be injected into the ear to regenerate these cells within the cochlea. In clinical trials, the company has already improved people’s hearing as measured by tests of speech perception — the ability to understand speech and recognize words.
“Speech perception is the No. 1 goal for improving hearing and the No. 1 need we hear from patients,” says Frequency co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Chris Loose PhD ’07.
In Frequency’s first clinical study, the company saw statistically significant improvements in speech perception in some participants after a single injection, with some responses lasting nearly two years.
The company has dosed more than 200 patients to date and has seen clinically meaningful improvements in speech perception in three separate clinical studies. Another study failed to show improvements in hearing compared to the placebo group, but the company attributes that result to flaws in the design of the trial.
Now Frequency is recruiting for a 124-person trial from which preliminary results should be available early next year.
The company’s founders, including Loose, MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer, CEO David Lucchino MBA ’06, Senior Vice President Will McLean PhD ’14, and Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology affiliate faculty member Jeff Karp, are already gratified to have been able to help people improve their hearing through the trials. They also believe they’re making important contributions toward solving a problem that impacts more than 40 million people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions more around the world.
“Hearing is such an important sense; it connects people to their community and cultivates a sense of identity,” says Karp, who is also a professor of anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I think the potential to restore hearing will have enormous impact on society.”