NHS develops world-first bedside genetic test to prevent babies going deaf

Decorative image of abstract gene-related design

A world-first genetic test that could save the hearing of hundreds of babies each year has been developed and successfully piloted in the NHS. 

Taking just 25 minutes, the bedside machine identifies whether a critically ill baby admitted to intensive care has a gene that could result in permanent hearing loss if they are treated with a common emergency antibiotic. 

The new swab test technique would replace a test that traditionally took several days, and could save the hearing of 180 babies in England alone every year. 

People 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. 

Developed in Manchester, 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. 

Following the completion of the ground-breaking study, the NHS Genomic Medicine Service Alliance (GMSA) and the NHS will be exploring how this technology can be launched as part of a clinical service through the NHS Genomic Medicine Service. 

Gill Moss, Nurse Director for North East and Yorkshire GMSA and Lead Nurse for North West GMSA said “The success of this pilot is fantastic news for the babies who would otherwise have lost their hearing, and I look forward to seeing how this can be incorporated into practice across the NHS.” 

Professor Dame Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer for England and Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics in the NHS, said: “Genomic medicine is transforming healthcare, and this is a powerful example of how genetic testing can now be done extremely quickly and become a vital part of triage – not only in intensive care but across our services.  

“It also shows the importance of thinking about how advances in technology can rapidly transform how we use genomics closer to care for our patients.” 

Watch the ITV report on the test below.

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