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New test could save the hearing of hundreds of babies a year

A world-first genetic test that could save the hearing of babies at risk of permanent hearing loss caused by a common emergency antibiotic has been successfully piloted in the NHS.

Taking just 25 minutes, the new test can identify whether a critically ill baby admitted to intensive care has a gene that could result in permanent hearing loss if they are treated with an antibiotic such as gentamicin.

The new swab test technique would replace a test that took several days and could save the hearing of 200 babies in England alone every year.

Babies admitted to intensive care are usually given an antibiotic called gentamicin within 60 minutes. While gentamicin is used to safely treat about 100,000 babies a year, one in 500 babies carry the gene that can make it cause permanent hearing loss.

The new test means that babies found to have the genetic variant can be given an alternative antibiotic within the ‘golden hour.’

It is expected the test could save the NHS £5 million every year by reducing the need for other interventions, such as cochlear implants.

We’re really pleased that RNID helped kickstart this breakthrough, by funding a pilot project at the University of Manchester in 2016.  That project aimed to develop a simple genetic test that could be used at the bedside to rapidly identify premature babies at risk of hearing loss if given aminoglycoside antibiotics.

The research team then secured follow-on funding from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) to develop the test further and evaluate its performance in hospital settings.

The test will now be used in neonatal intensive care units across Manchester, and the NHS will explore how to roll out the test across the UK. 

Ralph Holme, our Director of Research and Insight, said:

RNID and our supporters are delighted to see this research, which we helped to kickstart, lead to a simple test that can save the hearing of hundreds of babies a year.

This rapid test will be a gamechanger, allowing doctors to make the best decisions for premature babies who need antibiotic treatment.

At RNID we are committed to funding research to prevent hearing loss, restore hearing and silence tinnitus. Hearing loss and tinnitus research is significantly underfunded, yet tests like these can make a life changing difference to families now and for generations to come.

We are pleased that the NHS are now exploring how the test can be used as part of a clinical service across the UK and look forward to all babies having access to this important test as soon as possible.”

Read more about the new genetic test.

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