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New version of popular antibiotic eliminates side effect of deafness

About five years before he died, my father was prescribed gentamycin, one of the most commonly used class of antibiotics called aminoglycosides, for a heart infection of unknown origins. The antibiotic successfully cured him of the life-threatening infection, but it also left him with a life-changing side effect, one with the strange-sounding name of oscillopsia.

Oscillopsia is a balance disorder that creates the illusion of an unstable visual world in its patients that can be quite disabling. For my father, it messed with his tennis game in the remaining years of his life and forced him to sit on the couch when he would rather have been running around with his grandchildren. But he was lucky. In addition to balance disorders, side effects from these cheap and extremely effective antibiotics that have been used for decades worldwide, include high rates of deafness and kidney damage.

Now, Stanford researchers led by otolaryngologoist Alan Cheng, MD, and Tony Ricci, PhD, have made a modified version of these drugs that successfully treats infections without the side effects of deafness and kidney damage. In a press release on the study, which was published Friday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, I wrote about a boy (whose story is also told in this Stanford-produced video) who lost his hearing from these antibiotic treatments during his battle with cancer:

On Christmas Eve, 2002, Bryce Faber was diagnosed with a deadly cancer called neuroblastoma. The 2-year-old's treatment, which, in addition to surgery, included massive amounts of radiation followed by even more massive amounts of antibiotics, no doubt saved his life. But those same mega-doses of antibiotics, while staving off infections in his immunosuppressed body, caused a permanent side effect: deafness.

"All I remember is coming out of treatment not being able to hear anything," said Bryce, now a healthy 14-year-old living in Arizona. "I asked my mom, 'Why have all the people stopped talking?' He was 90 percent deaf.

These are extremely important life-saving drugs, Ricci, a basic scientist and expert on the biophysics of the inner ear, told me. But they could be so much better if patients didn't have to risk their toxic side effects. So far, the new versions of the drug that he and colleagues developed have only been tested in mice, but the hope is to conduct clinical trials as soon as is safely possible. "If we can eventually prevent people from going deaf from taking these antibiotics, in my mind, we will have been successful," Ricci said. "Our goal is to replace the existing aminoglycosides with ones that aren’t toxic."

The new drugs have not yet been tested as to whether they still cause balance disorders. That's on the docket for the future. But my article describing this wedding of basic science with clinical treatment is a hopeful reminder of the importance of modern-day scientists to public health.

Previously: Listen to this: Research upends understanding of how humans perceive sound; Stanford developed probe aids study of hearing and Studying the inner ear and advancing research in developmental biology

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