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New rapid genetic test could prevent antibiotic-related hearing loss in newborns

Published: 23 January 2020

NIHR-funded researchers have begun a new study on a bedside genetic test to predict whether newborn babies receiving antibiotics in intensive care are at risk of irreversible hearing loss.

The world's-first test quickly identifies babies who are particularly sensitive antibiotics that can damage the sound detecting cells in the inner ear. The test, which involves a simple cheek swap, allows doctors to use more appropriate types of antibiotic in babies at risk of hearing loss.

Newborn babies admitted to intensive care units with an infection should be given antibiotics within the first hour. A large number - approximately 90,000 babies per year in the UK - are treated with the antibiotic gentamicin.

Some babies have a genetic predisposition that means they can develop irreversible hearing loss when exposed to gentamicin. However, previous tests to identify those babies with the genetic susceptibility took too long, resulting in an estimated 1 in 500 babies suffering profound hearing loss as a result of lifesaving treatment.

The new test takes a total of 20 minutes and involves a nurse placing cells swabbed from a baby’s cheek into a PC-sized bedside machine. By providing information on an infant’s risk of antibiotic-related hearing loss, the new test will allow doctors to find the right treatment for each baby without incurring lifelong side effects.

The Pharmacogenetics to Avoid Loss of Hearing (PALoH) study, which first began in 2018, is funded by the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme and supported by the NIHR Manchester Biomedical Research Centre, in partnership with Manchester-based firm Genedrive and the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

Successful implementation of the technology across the UK could save an estimated 180 babies a year from profound hearing loss, and also save the NHS an estimated £5m every year in cochlear implantations and other hospital costs.

Read more about the research in the news coverage in the Independent newspaper.

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