“Breakthrough for genetic hearing loss as gene editing prevents deafness in mice,” reports The Guardian after researchers used a technique to “snip” away a gene mutation that leads to progressive deafness.
While many people assume hearing loss is something mainly associated with ageing, many cases are in fact hereditary.
It’s estimated there are more than 400 forms of genetic hearing loss, many of which are progressive (they get worse over time).
The mice in the study were bred with a genetic mutation of the TMC1 gene, which causes tiny hair cells in the inner ear to die off and stop growing. As the hair cells die off, hearing becomes progressively worse.
The scientists then disabled the gene mutation by injecting a mixture of a protein and a type of genetic material called RNA into the ears of newborn mice.
They found mice that had the treatment to disable the gene mutation continued to have healthy inner ear hair cells, and could hear better than untreated mice.
This is interesting news – there’s currently no treatment that can tackle the underlying causes of genetic hearing loss.
But the standard warning applies: what works in mice may not work in humans.
Where did the story come from?
The researchers who carried out the study were from Harvard University, Harvard Medical School and Tufts University in the US, and Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine in China.
The study was funded by grants from a range of organisations, including the US National Institutes of Health and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.
The Mail Online reported the treatment “reversed deafness in mice” and was a “dramatic step towards a cure for children who are born deaf”. This is inaccurate.
The treatment prevented mice becoming deaf, so any potential human treatment would only be useful for children born with the ability to hear but have a genetic condition that leads to progressive hearing loss.
The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph carried more balanced and accurate reports of the study.
What kind of research was this?
Scientists carried out a series of experiments in the laboratory, firstly on cells grown in the lab and then on mice.
Animal experiments are useful ways to develop new technologies and treatments before they’re at a stage where they can be safely tested on humans.
But successful animal experiments don’t always lead to successful treatments for humans.