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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — The biotech industry in Oklahoma is booming, with OKC and its countless labs and research foundations at the epicenter. And, with a massive deal struck last month, a local company stands to lead the charge against hearing loss.

Oklahoma City-based biotech portfolio Autigen (a subsidiary of Otologic, all part of Ascend BioVentures) closed a collaborative deal with German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer-Ingelheim to further research and develop a one-of-a-kind potential treatment for what’s known as sensorineural hearing loss, or SNHL, the most common type of hearing loss worldwide.

The deal sees Boehringer paying an undisclosed amount upfront for Autigen to continue development of their novel SNHL treatment, with further milestone-based payments pledged for the future, potentially totaling more than $100 million.

“I’m really excited about this and the potential it has,” said Autigen president and Ascend BioVentures CEO Elaine Hamm, Ph.D.

Regenerative Treatment

SNHL ranks as the leading form of hearing loss, affecting more than 430 million people and roughly 90% of all hearing loss cases worldwide.

The root of the condition is tied to the degeneration of tiny hair cells inside the inner ear.

“One of the biggest challenges with hearing loss itself is that you have these cells in the cochlea that get damaged,” Hamm explained. “The cochlea is the organ in your ear that actually takes the sound waves and transmits them to your brain, and these hair cells are the things that are really making you hear. Once they’re damaged, they don’t grow back.”

With the majority of hearing loss research focused on attempting to slow the degeneration and loss of those cells, Otologic set their sights on developing a way to regrow the cells from scratch.

“That’s the drug that we’ve been working on for the past several years,” Hamm said. “Basically, our drug can address these key ‘switches’ in the inner ear that tell different cells to regrow and regenerate these hair cells after you’ve had noise trauma or some hearing loss related disease.”

“A Huge, Enormous Problem”

Hamm, who carries a Ph.D. in microbiology from OU, has a history of assisting medical startups on the business end and helping small companies to grow investment toward commercialization.

Dr. Elaine Hamm, Ph.D., Autigen president and Ascend BioVentures CEO

That’s actually how she first joined the company and began looking into how the pharmaceutical industry had been handling the problem of hearing loss.

“I was on the investment side and was doing all of this research around what the hearing loss market looked like,” she said. “I was absolutely floored that there really wasn’t anything out there, because this is such a huge, enormous problem that causes a lot of suffering.”

Though Hamm says that much of the science being used for this new regenerative treatment “spun out” of work done at OKC’s Hough Ear Institute, the research’s previous largest funding source was something of a surprise.

“We actually got funded by the Department of Defense,” she told me. “Obviously, this is a huge problem for veterans and for our active soldiers. Hearing loss and tinnitus are the number one and number two most common disabilities for veterans.”

Research Beyond Borders

Though promising, this new treatment is still in the pre-human testing phase, and Hamm said that finding the right high-level financial collaborator was integral to moving the project along.

“We got in touch with this group Boehringer-Ingelheim, which is a German pharmaceutical company” she said. “They actually have a very specific division called ‘Research Beyond Borders,’ where they’re looking at really novel new things, especially related to regenerative medicine.”

This new, official funding deal is actually the culmination of a longstanding relationship that Autigen and Otologic have developed with Boehringer.

Boehrenger Ingleheim headquarters (courtesy photo)

“We started working with them about two years ago,” said Hamm. “They’ve been really amazing collaborators to work with, because they bring their huge expertise in developing new drugs, and we bring our expertise in the hearing space. Over the past six months, we’ve been working on a license agreement, and that’s the deal that ultimately got announced.”

While she acknowledges that staking a deal this large on scientific research can be “incredibly risky,” Hamm says she’s excited for the potential positive outcomes, and glad to see Oklahoma leading the way on such an important issue.

“My job is all about trying to connect the science of the business with the money,” she said, “but I really strongly believe in this technology and the potential it has. This is an opportunity to help someone hear again. I mean, you can’t pass that up.”

Feature photo caption: Dr. Matthew West of the Hough Ear Institute in Oklahoma takes part in research that has resulted in development of a proprietary, injectable treatment for sensorineural hearing loss. (courtesy photo)

Last Updated May 8, 2022, 8:15 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor