The iPod made tiny earbuds supercool. But the digital music revolution has created some damaging consequences, as millions of young people listen to songs for hours every day at sometimes deafening volumes.
Most of them won’t turn down the noise anytime soon, and as millions develop early forms of hearing loss, it is creating a big new opportunity for a Seattle-based biotech company, Sound Pharmaceuticals.
“I’ve talked with a lot of people who say things like, ‘I was in the elevator the other day, and I could hear that guy’s iPod playing, so I can only imagine what he’s exposing himself to,'” says Jonathan Kil, Sound Pharma’s CEO. “A lot of parents of teens are obviously concerned.”
Hearing loss is one of the most common health ailments in the U.S., and one of the last unexplored frontiers of the pharma and biotechnology industry. An estimated 30 million Americans have debilitating hearing loss and balance disorders. Scientists say the ailment comes from an accumulation of exposure to high-decibel environments—noisy factory workplaces, repeated gunfire if you’re a military veteran, old-fashioned age-related hearing loss, or, yes, excessive cranking of the iPod at any age. About one in five adolescents is now affected by hearing loss, according to a national health survey. Yet there are still no drugs specifically approved by the FDA, and scientists are still very much in the dark about what’s going wrong biologically in the ear, and how to go about treating the condition.
Sound Pharmaceuticals has been around since 2002, and has no approved drugs on the market. It has raised about $10 million in government funding, and another $10 million in investment capital to develop treatments for hearing loss, Kil says. The company spent much of the last three years trying, unsuccessfully, to recruit active military servicemen and women into a clinical trial that would test its lead compound. That trial struggled to enroll enough volunteers, partly because the military is stretched thin fighting overseas wars, and line commanders are unwilling to let their people join an eight-week clinical study, Kil says.
So Sound Pharma has switched gears, and is focusing now on a new patient population—those 18- to 31-year-olds who are blasting their ears on a daily basis with music.
This test is still in the very early stages, so it has a long way to go before it can be proven worthy of a spot on the market. Sound Pharma has shown that it can consistently protect mice, rats, and guinea pigs from temporary and permanent hearing loss, and has published its findings, Kil says. The next step is a clinical trial, led by Colleen Le Prell at the University of Florida. Her Florida research team will recruit 80 young people who will be randomly assigned to a placebo or a low, medium, or high dose of the Sound Pharma drug two days before they are exposed to four hours of loud music—which Le Prell has shown can induce a temporary hearing loss.
Like many experimental drugs, scientists have some ideas about how the new treatment might be working, but much of its action is unknown. The new drug is … Next Page »
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