Imagine the grinding, drilling and clanging that workers endure on factory floors and construction sites. It’s not hard to believe that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls noise-induced hearing loss one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States. Dangerously loud workplaces put some 22 million workers at risk every year.
That’s not to mention hearing loss any of us can suffer from activities like listening to loud music or operating noisy equipment at home.
Noise-induced hearing loss is the second most common form of sensorineural hearing deficit, behind only age-related hearing loss. Beyond its obvious drawbacks, recent studies suggest that hearing loss can lead to other brain problems, such as memory loss and depression.
Despite the need, currently there are no approved medications for hearing loss. But if a NEOMED researcher has his way, we may be able to combat it by taking an herbal supplement derived from a Chinese plant.
Collaborating through the REDIzone
For more than 17 years, Jianxin Bao, Ph.D., director of the Translational Research Center at NEOMED, has worked to find practical applications of his research on hearing disorders such as hearing loss and tinnitus. Working with Gateway Biotechnology, Inc., a company Dr. Bao co-founded with two doctors of otorhinolaryngology, his group was the first to discover a family of antiepileptic drugs able to prevent hearing loss, and obtained Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for clinical studies. Subsequently, two Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were awarded to the company to repurpose FDA-approved drugs for use against hearing loss.
After several discussions with Elliot Reed, the program manager of NEOMED’s REDIzone commercialization incubator, Dr. Bao persuaded the company board to move the company from St. Louis to Rootstown in June 2015, mainly due to the excellent support and outstanding core structures at the REDIzone. With the REDIzone’s support, the company has initiated multiple product development projects with top researchers in the field of hearing loss at NEOMED and other institutions, and has obtained additional NIH and private funding.
Hope from a Chinese herb
People with hearing loss often visit audiologists instead of medical doctors—but audiologists cannot prescribe medications, which poses a barrier to finding relief. One source of new NIH funding has come to Dr. Bao’s team from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, supporting its efforts to develop a new product that combats the hearing loss caused by common cancer drugs. Based on an herb (to remain nameless, for proprietary reasons), used in Chinese traditional medicine, the product will be categorized as a nutraceutical—a dietary supplement or a food additive that provides nutrition. In this way, Dr. Bao’s product would be able to provide patients access to help without a prescription.
By the way, of all the herbs out there, why this particular one? Because it can block calcium channels—and in Dr. Bao’s initial study of FDA-approved drugs, he learned that calcium channel blockers have been found to prevent hearing loss.
With extensive preclinical data from the collaborators, Dr. Bao predicts that nutraceutical products for better hearing will be available from the company in 2019. Dr. Bao’s team will then pursue institutional review board (IRB) approval to conduct human studies to further improve the efficacy of these nutraceuticals against hearing loss.
If all goes well, millions of people stand to benefit from an old herb put to new use.
–This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Ignite magazine.