01 July 2009

Gene research advancing

Gene researchers are making progress with a steady stream of new discoveries which may some day benefit people with hearing loss.

Several kinds of hearing loss are associated with gene mutations. Many such mutations have been identified, and more are added to the list on an almost regular basis.

A mutation of the KCNQ4 gene associated with age-related hearing loss and a mutation of the KCNE1 gene associated with increased risk of noise-induced hearing loss are two such examples.

Mutations of the SLC17A8 gene have been identified as a cause of congenital hearing loss, characterized by diminished ability to hear high frequency sounds.

Future treatment options

The discoveries make it possible for people to be screened for certain gene mutations and associated hearing loss susceptibility. The advances in research also offer hope for the development of future gene therapy for the treatment of hearing loss associated with the mutations.

The corner stone for potential treatment developments was laid in 2008 when scientists injected the Atoh1 gene into the developing inner ears of mice. The gene stimulated the development of hair cells.

A similar method may eventually make it possible to restore hearing in humans with hearing loss caused by defective or missing inner ear hair cells.

Important molecules

Other scientists have investigated microRNA, and several have published new findings in 2009.

MicroRNA are molecules affecting cell formation by regulating genetic activity. Scientists are trying to determine how changes in microRNA may cause hearing loss.

MicroRNA was first discovered in 1992, and the development of knowledge leading to future treatments benefiting hearing impaired people is a long-term project.

The same is true for all gene research; treatment techniques are yet to be discovered or developed.

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