Draper device could help develop drugs for hearing loss

Wedged behind the ear, this prototype device that could help test treatments for hearing loss.
Wedged behind the ear, this prototype device that could help test treatments for hearing loss.

A battery-operated device a little larger than a golf ball could one day help treat people with hearing loss by delivering medication directly into the cavity in their ear.

Engineers at Draper, a non-profit research company in Cambridge, have been developing the device along with collaborators at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

This month, they showed that the device is safe to be used in guinea pigs — mammals with sufficiently similar ear anatomy to ours. The next step, they say, is to test it in people.

Doctors have traditionally believed that loss of hearing was an untreatable phenomenon. But that conviction has flipped in the last decade, and the new understanding is that the condition may one day be restored without relying on cochlear implants or hearing aids.

No drug has been approved to treat hearing loss so far, though biotechs and pharmaceutical companies have seen an infusion of funding to develop drugs that could come close.

But getting trial drugs into the inner ear — which is nested within fluid-filled canals and insulated from the rest of the body by protective membranes — is a challenge.

The current alternative available to researchers testing these drugs in animals and people is cumbersome: They use a fine needle to inject the dose directly into the cavity behind the ear drum.

Jeff Borenstein, principal investigator on the team that built the device, said that the new device will play a key role in helping test experimental treatments. The device is surgically wedged behind the ear and can deliver a controlled dose of drugs directly to cochlea via a small tube.

“All of those companies are looking to deliver drugs into the inner ear using some technology — we’re trying to fill that gap,” Borenstein said.

Draper expects to partner with companies developing drugs for hearing loss, though no collaborations have been inked so far.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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