Screening for hearing loss before it happens

Allison Coffin stands in front of shelves filled with containers
Allison Coffin

Two Washington State University researchers want to help pharmaceutical companies know if their drugs may cause hearing loss before they hit the market.

“There are a number of different drugs that cause hearing loss, but we only know that because patients receive these drugs and start reporting hearing loss,” said Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist at WSU Vancouver. “Hearing loss is not tested for as a possible side effect during drug development or clinical trials. There has to be a better way.”

Coffin and John Harkness, CEO of a Portland-based WSU spinout company called Rewire Neuro Inc., are building a database for drug developers and researchers to assess a drug’s effect on hearing by comparing its chemical makeup with other drugs. The project is one of six to win $50,000 in funding during Cougar Cage, a competition modeled after the entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank.” WSU researchers pitched their projects in March to the Palouse Club, a group of philanthropists and investors dedicated to helping support the success of the University.

“Our whole strategy here is to look back at a number of molecules and drugs that we know induce hearing loss, or not, and use machine learning to make that same determination,” Harkness said. “It’s a collaboration of AI, computer science and hardcore biology.”

Harkness, a WSU Vancouver alumnus who met Coffin during his postdoctoral fellowship, said similar techniques are already used to screen drugs for cardiac and liver toxicity.

About this series

The Cougar Cage competition is a new way for WSU students, faculty and staff to secure private donor support through the Palouse Club for worthwhile projects that can help build the continued success of the University.

This series explores the first six projects to survive the competition and win funding from the group.

Modeled after the popular TV show Shark Tank, the first Cougar Cage match concluded in March. Future rounds are being planned.

Back at her lab, Coffin will take a closer look at those drugs that are flagged as potentially harmful to hearing by examining their effect on hearing cells inside the ears of zebrafish, which Coffin has worked with for several years on the Vancouver campus.

She said common drugs known to cause hearing loss include the chemotherapy drug Cisplatin and aminoglycosides, a group of antibiotics used for premature infants and cystic fibrosis patients.

Her team can also test drugs that could prevent hearing loss caused by medications.

Coffin said the project is timely because while there are always drugs in development and clinical trials, there are more than 900 additional drugs related to COVID-19.

“It is highly likely some of those will cause hearing loss in some of the patients that receive them,” Coffin said.

Coffin said the work would not be as far along without her former student Robby Boney who did the initial modeling for the project.

“It really came together from me talking with Robby and John, and saying, ‘hey, we have this problem,’” she said.

Harkness sees a strong future: “We are committed and look forward to a long-standing working relationship.

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