Hearing Loss May Be a Thing of the Past

Driving to a meeting in 2008, Jay Lichter, a venture capitalist, suddenly became so dizzy he had to pull over and call a friend to take him to the emergency room.

The diagnosis: Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear characterized by debilitating vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

But from adversity can spring opportunity. When Mr. Lichter learned there were no drugs approved to treat Ménière’s, tinnitus or hearing loss, he started a company, Otonomy. It is one of a growing cadre of start-ups pursuing drugs for the ear, an organ once largely neglected by the pharmaceutical industry. Two such companies, Otonomy and Auris Medical, went public in 2014.

Big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Roche are also exploring the new frontier. A clinical trial recently began of a gene therapy being developed by Novartis that is aimed at restoring lost hearing.

The sudden flurry of activity has not yet produced a drug that improves hearing or silences ringing in the ears, but some companies are reporting hints of promise in early clinical trials.

There is a huge need, some experts say. About 48 million Americans have a meaningful hearing loss in at least one ear; 30 million of them have it in both ears, said Dr. Frank R. Lin, an associate professor of otolaryngology and geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University. That figure is expected to increase as baby boomers grow older.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary