Improving Hearing and Vision Leadership at Mass. Eye and Ear

Now that the Mass. Eye and Ear has officially joined Partners, leaders from both organizations are optimistic about the potential to drive new advances in treating blindness, deafness and other debilitating diseases of the head and neck.

The move comes at a pivotal time as the promise of gene therapies for inherited eye and ear disorders is becoming a reality, and the demand for services for age-related sight and hearing loss is expected to skyrocket as the members of the Baby Boom generation turn past the age of 65.

“We believe that joining Partners HealthCare puts Mass. Eye and Ear in a position to best serve the broad spectrum of patients who require our services, including the rapidly growing aging population,” said John Fernandez, Mass. Eye and Ear President. “Beyond patient care, this strengthened relationship will further advance research and innovation.”

“I think it really makes sense from our standpoint,” adds Joan Miller, MD, Chief of Ophthalmology at Mass. Eye and Ear. “We were very successful as an independent hospital, but it becomes harder to maintain a lot of the platforms to provide the best in clinical care and research. The infrastructure to keep all of that supported becomes harder to do as a smaller institution.”

“Together, we can improve access to Mass. Eye and Ear services with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of life for families throughout the region and around the world,” says Gregg Meyer, MD, Chief Clinical Officer of PHS. “By combining the research efforts of both organizations, we hope to accelerate medicine’s search for new cures for deafness and blindness.”

Formalizing an Existing Relationship

Founded in Boston in 1824, Mass. Eye and Ear is the oldest eye and ear, nose and throat hospital in the country. It is also home to the world’s largest vision and hearing research centers as well as the Harvard Medical School training programs in ophthalmology and otolaryngology.

Joining with PHS helps to solidify relationships that have long existed between Mass. Eye and Ear and the founding hospitals.

“After many decades of informal collaboration, we formally signed on to serve as the Department of Otolaryngology and Ophthamology at Mass General ten years ago,” says Bradley Welling, MD, Chief of Otolaryngology at Mass. Eye and Ear. “To become officially one of the Partners family as a top-tier hospital is wonderful for us. They do so many things so well.”

“One of the big benefits of joining Partners is the access to significant scientific resources to help our physicians and scientists develop new technologies and treatments, including artificial intelligence, the Partners HealthCare Biobank, the ability to conduct large clinical trials and the breadth and depth of the innovation and licensing teams,” Fernandez says.

“Being involved in Partners will allow us to work together to oversee all ophthalmology across the network and to highlight and energize our research,” Miller adds. “So, it is good for everybody.”

Research and Innovation

Mass. Eye and Ear brings an impressive research portfolio to PHS with strengths in gene therapy treatments for inherited hearing and vision disorders as well as strategies to treat age-related hearing loss, macular degeneration, cancers of the head and neck and rhinosinusitis, among others.

“Many of the big advances in ophthalmology over the past 10 years—such as the artificial cornea and new treatments for macular degeneration—spurred from research that started at Mass. Eye and Ear,” Miller says.

Clinician-researchers such as Eric Pierce, MD, PhD, Director of the Ocular Genomics Institute, have made progress in identifying the genetic causes of retinal disease and moving gene-based therapies from the lab to the clinic. Pierce and his team have identified 60 percent of the genes associated with inherited retinal disorders and are closing in on the remaining 40 percent as well.

“The challenge in this field is that inherited retinal degenerative disorders are genetically diverse,” Pierce says. “There are over 260 different genetic disease genes identified so far, so we have a lot of work to do to bring this type of therapy to patients.”

Luk Vandenberghe, PhD, Director of the Grousbeck Gene Therapy Center at Mass. Eye and Ear, has spent the past two decades developing gene therapies for inherited vision disorders using adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) to deliver DNA snippets to cells that can replace the loss of function caused by mutated genes.

Vandenberghe and his team have taken an inspired approach to overcoming a key challenge of AAV treatments—namely that the virus is so common in the natural world that many people have already developed immunity to it.

Using computational models, Vandenberghe’s team has been able to reverse engineer the virus’s evolutionary path, identifying what ancestral versions of AAV looked like and bioengineering these models in the lab.

These ancestral AAVs not only provide a better understanding of how the viruses function (even small, naturally occurring variations can have a big effect on how they work as treatments) but could also help in treating patients that have been exposed to the current form of the virus and developed antibodies against it.

In the Department of Otolaryngology, there are 25 investigators working in the Eaton-Peabody Labs who are interested in balance and hearing-related issues. The team recently had some high-profile publications in Cell and Nature looking at gene editing techniques for restoring hearing, says Welling.

“We also had a Cell paper published looking at the milieu of head and neck cancer and doing some single cell sequencing that allows us to look at components of the tumors.”

Opportunities for Collaboration

Researchers at Mass. Eye and Ear are already collaborating with industry partners on clinical trials and drug development, but there are always opportunities to expand the breadth and scope of these efforts.

“We’re good at drug discovery, but when it comes to doing the IND-enabling studies and working toward clinical trials, that is a new set of skills,” says Welling. “I think that is where industry partners can help a lot.”

“I think there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration, and our faculty are interested in working with industry,” adds Miller. “Certainly, our clinical expertise is key, but we also have people doing translational research and also the expertise to move something into an early stage clinical trial. In the early stages, I think academia has a lot to offer, and our folks are interested in being engaged there.”