UPDATED: Boehringer adds second blue-sky research project aimed at defeating deafness

A joint project will explore key signaling pathways and proteins involved in regeneration of hair cells in the ear.(Pixabay)

Boehringer Ingelheim has teamed up with a Chinese research group to try to develop an effective drug treatment for the millions of people worldwide living with serious hearing loss.

The agreement with China Southeast University Institute of Life Sciences is focusing on the development of drugs that can regenerate hair cells from inner ear stem cells. Loss of these hair cells—which convert sound waves into electrical signals and send them to the brain—is the root cause of most types of hearing loss, says Boehringer.

This is the second partnership Boehringer has signed this year aimed at developing treatments for hearing loss, part of a strategy to focus its early-stage R&D on diseases with no current treatment options that lie outside its main areas of therapeutic focus of cardiometabolic, respiratory, immunology, oncology and central nervous system therapies. 

In March, the German drugmaker forged a three-year alliance with Kyoto University in Japan with the same objective of regenerating hair cells.

The China Southeast University deal focuses on the work of Professor Renjie Chai, a prominent hearing loss researcher who focuses on trying to harness stem cells to self-repair damage to the structure of the cochlea, the spiral cavity within the inner ear.

The project will explore key signaling pathways and proteins involved in regeneration of hair cells, with an emphasis on finding small-molecule drugs that could stimulate the process, Chai told FierceBiotech.

"In this collaboration, we will first identify the role of multiple signaling pathways, including Shh, Hippo, and Foxg1, in regulating the proliferation and differentiation of hair cell progenitors. Next we aim to develop a strategy for co-regulating multiple signaling pathways to induce the hair cell progenitors to regenerate functional hair cells."

At the moment the work is all being done in animal models, and it may take five to 10 years before the first candidate drugs are ready for testing in human trials, he added.

Success in tackling hearing loss could translate into a multibillion-dollar market, fueled by dissatisfaction with hearing aid devices, greater use of headphones and the aging of the global population. According to WHO data, over 360 million people live with disabling hearing loss, of whom 32 million are children under the age of 15. 

Boehringer is not alone in spotting the potential in tackling hearing loss. Several big pharma firms have active programs in this area—Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Novartis (thanks to a deal with GenVec) and GlaxoSmithKline for example—as  well as an array of smaller drug developers including Auris Medical, Frequency Therapeutics and Decibel Therapeutics.

Boehringer's interest in hearing loss stems from its recently launched Research Beyond Borders program, a blue-sky research initiative that is currently focusing on the areas of regenerative medicine, the microbiome and new technologies such as gene therapy. Chai's group is also working on gene therapy for congenital deafness, but that program is not covered by the current Boehringer agreement.