Professor Gary Housley, Director of the Translational Neuroscience Facility in the Faculty of Medicine is spearheading research into bionics-based gene delivery.
Researchers at UNSW have for the first time used electrical pulses delivered from a cochlear implant to deliver gene therapy, successfully regrowing auditory nerves. he research also heralds a possible new way of treating a range of neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, and psychiatric conditions such as depression through this novel way of delivering gene therapy.
The research is published today in the prestigious journal Science Translational Medicine.
“People with cochlear implants do well with understanding speech, but their perception of pitch can be poor, so they often miss out on the joy of music,” says UNSW Professor Gary Housley, who is the senior author of the research paper.
“Ultimately, we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound, which is particularly important for our sense of the auditory world around us and for music appreciation,” says Professor Housley, who is also the Director of the Translational Neuroscience Facility at UNSW Medicine.
The research, which has the support of Cochlear Limited through an Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant, has been five years in development.
The work centres on regenerating surviving nerves after age-related or environmental hearing loss, using existing cochlear technology. The cochlear implants are “surprisingly efficient” at localised gene therapy in the animal model, when a few electric pulses are administered during the implant procedure.
Professor Housley and his team at UNSW developed a way of using electrical pulses delivered from the cochlear implant to deliver the DNA to the cells close to the array of implanted electrodes. These cells then produce neurotrophins.
“No-one had tried to use the cochlear implant itself for gene therapy,” says Professor Housley. “With our technique, the cochlear implant can be very effective for this.”
Recently UNSW Innovations supported the group’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grant Application submission that was awarded $769,000 for translational research in partnership with Cochlear.