Research ArticleGene Therapy

Close-Field Electroporation Gene Delivery Using the Cochlear Implant Electrode Array Enhances the Bionic Ear

Science Translational Medicine  23 Apr 2014:
Vol. 6, Issue 233, pp. 233ra54
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3008177

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Can You Hear Me Now?

Hearing loss affects millions worldwide. Sensorineural hearing loss, in particular, typically follows the loss of cochlear hair cells—specialized cells in the inner ear that help convert acoustic vibrations into nerve impulses, a process that allows you to hear. Cochlear implants, or “bionic ears,” have been incredibly useful for deaf individuals; however, improvements in sound quality and range of environments where the implant can be used are desired. In this issue, Pinyon and colleagues worked to improve upon existing implants by simultaneously delivering a neurotrophic factor that can regenerate auditory nerves and, in turn, restore hearing.

The authors coined their approach “close-field electroporation.” An electrode array inserted into the cochlea of guinea pigs delivered brief, intense electrical pulses to surrounding tissue. This led to electroporation—basically, a temporary opening of the cell membrane—which allowed passage of genetic material into the mesenchymal cells lining the scala tympani. Once inside the cells’ nuclei, the gene construct produced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in humans that is considered to be a nerve growth factor. Electroporation-mediated BDNF gene delivery drove regeneration of neurites in the cochlea, leading to restoration of hearing in a deafened guinea pig model (animals with hair cells destroyed). Because cochlear implants are already routinely used in patients, with further optimization of electroporation, it is possible that including gene therapy could restore hearing loss and improve the quality of hearing in deaf individuals.