This Big Medical Problem Is Starting to Command More Respect From Funders

We report regularly on the millions given for biomedical research, and as you might expect, much of the focus is on the health issues you hear about the mostserious stuff like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. You know what you don't hear about so often? Hearing loss.

It's understandable: For the most part, bad hearing, even total deafness, doesn't kill you or put you in the hospital, so it takes a back seat to the deadlier diseases. And it's easy to think of hearing loss as a consequence of simply being lucky enough to live to old age, and maybe attending a few too many Rolling Stones concerts.

But it's more common and more problematic than you realize. A quarter to half of Americans over age 65 have disabling hearing loss. And it doesn't just affect older folks. About 37.5 million Americans over 18 have some trouble hearing. It's socially isolating, diminishes quality of life, and it's not so great for the career: The country loses up to $186 billion in estimated diminished productivity and tax revenues.

And hearing disorders can have lifelong implications for kids. Two to three of every thousand children are born with hearing disabilities, which often interferes with cognitive and social development, language skills, and academic performance.

But funding and philanthropy for hearing research is comparatively tiny. Within the NIH, for example, the budget for hearing and deafness research is less than half the budget for vision and eye disorders.

So it was very big news in the hearing research community when philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, co-CEO of the Carlyle Group asset management company, pledged $15 million to the Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The money will create a new hearing center focused on restoring hearing loss, through both research and patient care.

Fifteen million bucks would be welcome anywhere, of course, but it has the potential to be transformative in a neglected area like hearing research. 

The otolaryngology department at Hopkins has long been recognized as one of the premier centers for research in hearing loss and deafness, but even so, it remained under the giving radar. "Most contributions to our department have come from grateful patients, but nothing on the level of the Rubenstein gift," said Paul Fuchs, Ph.D., Bordley Professor and Director of Research, Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.  "Awareness is rising, but it's starting from a pretty low baseline."

The newly empowered center at Johns Hopkins will integrate clinical care and research to restore functional hearing in people with both congenital and acquired hearing loss. Researchers will explore new approaches to protect and repair the inner ear, including the nerve cells, and to ensure effective connectivity with the brain.

The better news is that scientists are closing in on significant breakthroughs, said Fuchs. For example, researchers are testing ways to regrow the hair cells of the inner ear that collect sound waves; for some reason, certain animals have the ability to regenerate hair cells, but humans can't. Scientists are also making progress in connecting those hair cell signals to the brain, to repair another part of the auditory system breakdown that causes hearing loss.

Huge areas of research includes better application of existing tools like hearing aids, as well as study of care for childhood ear infections, as well as cochlear implants.

A few months ago, we noted another in the too-short list of philanthropic initiatives for hearing loss when we wrote about the steady support by Wall Street funders Steven and Shelley Einhorn for the Manhattan-based Center for Hearing and Communication.

Rubenstein has given big in several areas, including the arts and health research. But he has received particular attention for his support for preservation of U.S. national historic treasures and sites—including the Washington Monument—which has earned him the label "the patriotic philanthropist."

Like many philanthropists who work without the oversight of a big foundation, Rubenstein has shown loyalty to his roots. He's a graduate of Duke University, and has made substantial donations to his alma mater. The gift to Johns Hopkins, where Rubenstein is both a university and Johns Hopkins Medicine trustee—apparently reflects an allegiance to Baltimore itself, where Rubenstein grew up.