First gene therapy to restore hearing tested in Kansas City

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Restoring hearing with a drug is the goal of a metro researcher. Now he’s begun the first study in humans of a gene therapy that could help people hear again.

Rob Gerk was ready to become a medical pioneer at the University of Kansas Hospital.

“Just wanta get it over with. All the testing and stuff like that kinda makes it build up to the big moment,” said Gerk.

The Denver man lost almost all of his hearing as toddler when he had meningitis. On October 28th, he became the first person in the world to get a drug infused in the inner ear to see if it can restore hearing. The drug is made up of a virus and a gene.

“We take a virus that normally causes cold-like symptoms and we take all of the guts of the virus that make it infectious out. And we replace it with the gene of interest,” said Dr. Hinrich Staecker.

Dr. Staecker has been working on the gene therapy for 17 years. In mice, it restored hearing.

“Through the regeneration of little cells that detect sound vibrations in the inner ear,” said the researcher.

The therapy triggered the growth of sensory receptors.

The initial human study with 21 patients will evaluate safety. Each patient will have one ear treated. Potential risks include more hearing loss or dizziness. Dr. Staecker says it should be known within six to eight weeks whether the therapy is restoring hearing, although results may not be made public for a year.

Study participants must have severe hearing loss resulting from noise, medications or some diseases.

Dr. Staecker knows the potential is huge.

“The potential is to make people hear again, and hearing loss is actually the most common neurodegenerative disease in man,” he said.

Gerk looks forward to possibly gaining some hearing.

“I could be more involved in conversations. I could do better at work and stuff like that,” he said.

Dr. Staecker says even if the therapy is effective, it probably won’t make hearing aids and cochlear implants obsolete. But it could significantly reduce the need for them.

For more information on the study, go to or e-mail

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