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Could Gene Therapy Fix Hearing and Balance Problems?

A novel study showed that switching out genetic code in mice restored hearing and balance.

researcher examining DNA

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Hearing and balance problems can be disabling. More than 35 percent of Americans over age 40 have balance issues that can lead to dangerous falls, and one in three U.S. adults over age 65 have some degree of hearing loss.

But new research indicates that gene therapy may provide hope for people with certain types of hearing loss and dizziness. For the first time, researchers have shown that gene therapy improved hearing and balance in mice suffering from a genetic inner ear problem that’s similar to that of human patients with Usher syndrome.

Rewriting the Genetic Code

A team headed by Wade Chien, M.D., a neuro-otologist in Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, applied gene therapy to the inner ears of mice with a mutation in a gene associated with Usher syndrome in humans. The mice, dizzy and deaf at birth, experienced improved hearing and restored balance after treatment.

The study was the first to show that this kind of inherited hearing loss in mice could be repaired by manipulating genes.

Although it’s not a given that a similar procedure would help humans, Dr. Chien is hopeful. “Inner ear gene therapy offers tremendous potential as a new way to help patients with hearing loss and dizziness,” he says. 

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