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Manchester BRC’s emergency genetic test could prevent antibiotic – related hearing loss in newborns

Manchester BRC researchers have launched a trial on a bedside genetic test that will predict whether newborn babies receiving antibiotics in intensive care are at risk of irreversible hearing loss.

The world’s first emergency genetic test quickly identifies babies who are particularly sensitive to antibiotics that can damage the sound detecting cells in the inner ear.

The test, which involves a simple cheek swab, can be conducted in 20 minutes at the beside and 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.

The Pharmacogenetics to Avoid Loss of Hearing (PALoH) study is led by Professor Bill Newman, Hearing Health Genomic Solutions, Associate Lead and Consultant at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust. The research is funded by the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme and involves Manchester-based firm genedrive plc who developed the Genedrive test and the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

Every year over seven million babies worldwide are prescribed the antibiotic gentamicin as it's cheap and effective against infections. One in 500 babies will carry a genetic variant which will lead to profound irreversible hearing loss in babies given this medication, approximately 14,000 babies worldwide each year. Successful implementation of the gentamicin test will be a first in the integration of a rapid decision-making, genetic-based diagnostic in the UK NHS.

Professor Bill Newman Manchester BRC, Hearing Health Genomic Solutions Associate Lead.

The trial started in the neonatal units at Saint Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, part of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, and Liverpool Women’s Hospital, at the beginning of January. All babies admitted to the units will be tested on arrival with the aim of avoiding hearing loss. The results of the study will be available later this year.

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 “The Independent” article by Rachel Pugh