A group of small drug firms aim to help those suffering from hearing disorders.
Efforts are diverse: Some biotechs are working on drugs that target the inner ear, where sound is first perceived, whereas others are focused on the central nervous system, where sound is processed. Some want to treat damage that has already occurred; others hope to prevent it. Several of their projects are reaching late-stage development, and big pharma is starting to pay attention.
Drug companies find a lot to like about hearing loss: large numbers of patients, a lack of treatments, clinical trials with clear-cut end points, and a small universe of hearing specialists to call on. But the newness means they are starting from scratch when it comes to designing and recruiting for trials.
“The thing about hearing is it is actually pretty much white space,” says Barbara Domayne-Hayman, chief business officer of Autifony Therapeutics, a biotech firm developing treatments for hearing loss. "We’re figuring out how to do it as we go along.”
Industry veterans compare hearing loss treatment to ophthalmology 10 years ago.
“The eye field really started with simple devices such as contact lenses, and moved to surgical procedures, and ultimately ended up with therapies to treat the front of the eye and injectables to treat the back of the eye,” explains James Healy, general partner at Sofinnova Ventures. Healy’s firm is an investor in Auris Medical, a small company that has some of the most clinically advanced drugs for hearing disorders.
Today, treatments for eye diseases rake in $10 billion in annual sales, Healy said.
The expectation is that treatment of hearing disorders will undergo a similar evolution, shifting from basic devices like hearing aids, to more advanced cochlear implants, and eventually to drugs that can prevent and treat hearing loss.