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Start-Up to Use Stem Cells for Hearing Loss

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20 May 2019. A new enterprise in the U.K. is creating treatments with stem cells to repair damaged nerve cells in the inner ear that causes hearing loss. Rinri Therapeutics in Sheffield, England is a spin-off business from University of Sheffield, also raising £1.4 million ($US 1.8 million) in seed funds from venture investors.

Rinri Therapeutics is developing treatments for sensorineural hearing loss, a condition caused by damage to the inner ear. In that part of the ear, hair cells that act as sensory receptors and the auditory nerve can become damaged from a number of causes, including genetics, trauma, advanced age, and repeated exposure to loud noise. The company cites data showing some 64 million people in the U.S. and 34 million in Europe are affected by sensorineural hearing loss.

Rinri’s treatments are designed to treat sensorineural hearing loss from damage to nerve cells in the ear, and restore the functioning of these nerve cells. The company’s technology is based on research by Sheffield stem cell biologist Marcelo Rivolta, His lab in the university’s Centre for Stem Cell Biology studies precursor stem cells to adult auditory nerve cells, particularly fetal inner ear cells that transform into adult nerve cells in the cochlea section of the inner ear.

Research by Rivolta and colleagues shows cultured embryonic stem cells can be transformed into adult inner-ear hair and auditory nerve cells. Implanting the transformed adult inner ear cells into lab gerbils induced with hearing loss also shows average recovered hearing in the animals of about 46 percent, a higher rate than untreated animals, some 4 weeks after receiving the implanted cells.

“We believe this an important step forward,” said Rivolta in a university statement at the time of the paper’s publication in 2012. “We now have a method to produce human cochlear sensory cells that we could use to develop new drugs and treatments, and to study the function of genes. And more importantly, we have the proof-of-concept that human stem cells could be used to repair the damaged ear.”

Seed funds — immediate start-up financing for new companies — for Rinri Therapeutics totaling £1.4 million are provided by the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund and UCB Ventures, the venture capital arms of those drug companies. BioCity, a life science and health care start-up incubator in the U.K., joined in the fund-raising.

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