THE BLOG

Funding for Hearing Research: A National Priority

18/01/2016 13:12 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 10:12 GMT

All of us will at some point in our lives be touched by hearing loss, with the number of people living with it set to rise from 11 million to 15.6 million or one in five - by 2035 - it is inevitable that hearing loss will affect us all.

I hope by that time we will have discovered cures for hearing loss and tinnitus and ways of restoring lost hearing, and see advances in technology to allow people to hear well even in the most challenging conditions. Whilst these aims are achievable, it's going to take a major increase in the amount invested in research to get there.

Why? Well, funding for such a prevalent and often hidden health condition is scandalously low, with less than 1% of the total investment in medical research spent on hearing loss in the UK.

Action on Hearing Loss, the charity I lead, has a long, proud history of supporting research into technology and treatments to help people confronting deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss.

Remarkable progress has already been made. Modern cochlear implants are an example of a life-changing technology that allow deaf people to hear sound by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve. The latest hearing aids are far more sophisticated than their analogue predecessors, and can be programmed to precisely amplify the sounds people struggle to hear.

Investment in research has also led to new technology able to diagnose children with a hearing loss within the first few days of life, so that they no longer have to struggle with undetected hearing loss. More recently, research has brought us a new genetic test to allow parents of children with hereditary hearing loss to better understand the cause of their child's deafness.

But, this is just the start. People tell us that more needs to be done to make it easier to follow conversations when they are using hearing aids or implants when there is a lot of background noise.

They want new treatments to prevent or slow down the gradual decline in hearing that we currently just accept as an inevitable part of getting older. They want therapies to fix the root cause of their hearing loss, so that they can hear again naturally. Those struggling with tinnitus want safe and effective treatments to silence the constant unwanted ringing or whooshing sound in their ears or head.

It is vital that we and others continue to support scientific research into treatments that people with hearing loss and tinnitus demand.

The challenge is that relative to the scale of the issue, hearing research is chronically underfunded. This was highlighted recently in a report published by the UK Clinical Research Collaboration which showed that spending on hearing-related research by the UK's main public and charitable funders of medical research decreased in real terms over the last 10 years (2004-2014). Worryingly, it was the only health area to see a decrease.

In 2014, just £1.11 was spent on hearing research for every person affected. For the sake of comparison, £11.35 was spent on research into sight loss for every person affected and £19.79 on research into cardiovascular conditions for every person affected.

We've come a long way, but there is much further to go. Research into gene, cell and drug-based treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus is showing real promise. Scientists have shown that stem cells can be used to repair the auditory nerve fibre and restore hearing in gerbils. Drugs which silence specific types of tinnitus are being clinically tested, and the world's first clinical trial of a gene therapy to repair damage to the cochlea started last year. If we are to capitalise on the scientific progress being made and meet the growing demand for better treatments and cures, we now need to urgently address the severe underfunding of hearing research.

Medical research charities account for over a third of all publicly funded medical research in the UK, so it is vital that the public's awareness of the importance of research into treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus increases. I wonder how many of you knew, before reading this blog, that research into treatments to prevent hearing loss and restoring hearing even existed, or was so wide-ranging and extensive.

We can't rely on the public's generosity alone. Governments across the UK need to make research into hearing loss a national priority, just as David Cameron did in 2012 when he committed to doubling national funding for research into dementia by 2015. Finally, we need the biotech and pharmaceutical industry to invest in developing new treatments as well.

We as a charity will continue to engage and help the major players in hearing loss research work together.

Hearing loss is a growing public health issue that cannot be ignored, something the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that by 2030 will be in the top ten disease burdens in the UK, above cataracts and diabetes. Research evidence shows that mild hearing loss doubles the risk of developing dementia and the personal cost of hearing loss can be devastating - causing loneliness and isolation and doubling the risk of developing depression, so it is vital that we continue to make inroads to find cures and treatments for deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss.

History shows that investment in science and technology will lead to new treatments to improve the quality of life for the ever growing number of people confronting hearing loss and tinnitus. Now is the time for everyone to act.

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