Skip to content
Massachusetts Eye and Ear
/assets/MEE/images/press-releases/gene-therapy-thumb.png Press Release

Press ReleaseJanuary 24, 2024

Gene Therapy Restores Hearing in Children with Hereditary Deafness

Media Contact

Ryan Jaslow 

Program Director, External Communications - Research, Mass General Brigham

  • A clinical trial in China in collaboration with Mass Eye and Ear investigators showcased the recovery of hearing for individuals suffering from a type of inherited deafness, DFNB9.
  • Five of six children treated demonstrated hearing recovery and improvements in speech recognition. No dose-limiting toxicities were reported.
  • The trial, which began in December 2022, was the first to administer a gene therapy to a child with DFNB9.

A new study co-led by investigators from Mass Eye and Ear, a member of Mass General Brigham, demonstrated the effectiveness of a gene therapy towards restoring hearing function for children suffering from hereditary deafness. In a trial of six children taking place at the Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai, China, the researchers found the novel gene therapy to be an effective treatment for patients with a specific form of autosomal recessive deafness caused by mutations of the OTOF (otoferlin) gene, called DFNB9. With its first patient treated in December 2022, this research represents the first human clinical trial to administer gene therapy for treating this condition, with the most patients treated and longest follow-up to date. Their results are published January 24th in The Lancet.

“If children are unable to hear, their brains can develop abnormally without intervention,” said Zheng-Yi Chen, DPhil, an associate scientist in the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear and associate professor of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School. “The results from this study are truly remarkable. We saw the hearing ability of children improve dramatically week by week, as well as the regaining of their speech.”

Hearing loss affects more than 1.5 billion people worldwide, with congenital deafness making up about 26 million of those individuals. For hearing loss in children, more than 60 percent stem from genetic reasons. DFNB9 for example, is a hereditary disease caused by mutations of the OTOF gene and a failure to produce a functioning otoferlin protein, which is necessary for the transmission of the sound signals from the ear to the brain. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs to help with hereditary deafness, which has opened the door for new solutions like gene therapies.

In order to test this novel treatment, six children with DFNB9 were observed over a 26-week period at the Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University. The Mass Eye and Ear collaborators utilized an adeno-associated virus (AAV) carrying a version of the human OTOF gene to carefully introduce the gene into the inner ears of the patients through a special surgical procedure. Differing doses of the single injection of the viral vector were used.

All six children in the study had total deafness, as indicated by an average auditory brainstem response (ABR) threshold of over 95 decibels. After 26 weeks, five children demonstrated hearing recovery, showing a 40-57 decibel reduction in ABR testing, dramatic improvements in speech perception and the restored ability to conduct normal conversation. Overall, no dose-limiting toxicity was observed. While following up on the patients, 48 adverse events were observed, with a significant majority (96%) being low grade, and the rest being transitory with no long-term impact.

Trial findings will also be presented February 3rd at the Association for Research in Otolaryngology Annual Meeting.

This study provides evidence towards the safety and effectiveness of gene therapies in treating DFNB9, as well as their potential for other forms of genetic hearing loss. Moreover, the results contribute to an understanding of the safety of AAV insertion into the human inner ear. In regard to the usage of AAVs, the success of a dual-AAV vector carrying two pieces of the OTOF gene is notable. Typically, AAVs have a gene size limit, and so for a gene like OTOF that exceeds that limit, the achievement with a dual viral vector opens the door for AAV’s use with other large genes that are typically too big for the vector.

“We are the first to initiate the clinical trial of OTOF gene therapy. It is thrilling that our team translated the work from basic research in animal model of DFNB9 to hearing restoration in children with DFNB9,” said lead study author Yilai Shu, MD, of the Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University at Fudan University. Shu previously served as a postdoctoral fellow in Chen’s lab at Mass Eye and Ear. “I am truly excited about our future work on other forms of genetic hearing loss to bring treatments to more patients.”

The researchers plan to expand the trial to a larger sample size as well as track their outcomes over a longer timeline.

Studies like this one show the promise of gene therapy for treating conditions such as hearing loss. Mass General Brigham’s Gene and Cell Therapy Institute is helping to translate scientific discoveries made by researchers into first-in-human clinical trials and, ultimately, life-changing treatments for patients. The Institute’s multidisciplinary approach sets it apart from others in the space, helping researchers to rapidly advance new therapies and push the technological and clinical boundaries of this new frontier.

“Not since cochlear implants were invented 60 years ago, has there been an effective treatment for deafness,” said Chen. “This is a huge milestone that symbolizes a new era in the fight against all types of hearing loss.”

Authorship: Co-first authors include Jun Lv, Hui Wang, Xiaoting Cheng, Yuxin Chen, Daqi Wang. Co-senior authors include: Wuqing Wang, Renjie Chai, Zheng-Yi Chen, Huawei Li, and Yilai Shu. Additional co-authors include: Longlong Zhang, Qi Cao, Honghai Tang, Shaowei Hu, Kaiyu Gao, Mengzhao Xun, Jinghan Wang, Zijing Wang, Biyun Zhu, Chong Cui, Ziwen Gao, Luo Guo, Sha Yu, Luoying Jiang, Yanbo Yin, Jiajia Zhang, and Bing Chen.

Disclosures: Kaiyu Gao is a staff of the Shanghai Refreshgene Therapeutics Co., Ltd. Zheng-Yi Chen is a cofounder of Salubritas Therapeutics. The other authors declare no conflict of interests.
Funding: National Natural Science Foundation of China, National Key R&D Program of China, Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality, and Shanghai Refreshgene Therapeutics.

Paper cited: Lv, J et al. “AAV1-hOTOF Gene Therapy for Autosomal Recessive Deafness 9: a single-arm 2 trial”. Journal DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(23)02874-X.

About Mass Eye and Ear

Massachusetts Eye and Ear, founded in 1824, is an international center for treatment and research and a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. A member of Mass General Brigham, Mass Eye and Ear specializes in ophthalmology (eye care) and otolaryngology–head and neck surgery (ear, nose and throat care). Mass Eye and Ear clinicians provide care ranging from the routine to the very complex. Also home to the world's largest community of hearing and vision researchers, Mass Eye and Ear scientists are driven by a mission to discover the basic biology underlying conditions affecting the eyes, ears, nose, throat, head and neck and to develop new treatments and cures. In the 2023–2024 “Best Hospitals Survey,” U.S. News & World Report ranked Mass Eye and Ear #4 in the nation for eye care and #7 for ear, nose and throat care. For more information about life-changing care and research at Mass Eye and Ear, visit our blog, Focus, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.