Business

Could an injection reverse hearing loss? This Woburn startup thinks so

Frequency Therapeutics is developing disease-modifying treatment for hearing loss.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Frequency Therapeutics is developing disease-modifying treatment for hearing loss.

David Lucchino admits he attended too many U2 concerts years ago.

So like many middle-aged Americans, he has more than a passing interest in the prospect of hearing loss. Unlike most, he is working to do something about it.

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On Tuesday, Lucchino is formally launching his Woburn startup, Frequency Therapeutics, which seeks to regenerate sensory hair cells in the inner ear to treat the noise-induced hearing loss that affects an estimated 48 million Americans and millions more worldwide.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Xiaolei Yin examined cellular samples Monday at Frequency Therapeutics's shared lab in Cambridge.

Frequency, which is licensing discoveries by scientists Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jeffrey Karp at Partners HealthCare, just closed a $32 million initial funding round from an investment consortium led by Cobro Ventures Inc. of McLean, Va. Its goal is to get a treatment on the market in the next few years.

“The opportunity is tremendous,” Lucchino, Frequency’s cofounder and chief executive, said in an interview. “There’s 1.1 billion people around the world who are at risk or have hearing loss. We’ve figured out a way to biologically hot-wire the sensory hair cells in a very natural way to get the ear to heal itself.”

Frequency is building on the foundational approach of cell therapy, which seeks to remove defective cells from the body, reprogram them, and put them back in. But instead of removing cells, Frequency is developing a small molecule that can be injected in the ear to activate progenitor cells — stem cells at a certain stage of development — that can remain in the body and repair damage.

“We call ourselves a regenerative medicine 2.0 company,” said Lucchino, whose uncle is Larry Lucchino, a partner in the Boston Red Sox and chairman of the Pawtucket Red Sox. “We want to create a healthy response in the stem cells that already are where you want them to be.”

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Frequency has been working in what the biotech industry calls stealth mode for 18 months, with a team of more than a dozen researchers and clinicians leasing space in Woburn from Alexandria Real Estate, one of the investors taking part in the venture round, and working in a satellite lab at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Farmington. Other investors in the startup include Morningside Ventures, Emigrant Capital Corp., and Korean Investment Partners.

Lucchino, a serial entrepreneur who sold a previous company, Semprus Biosciences, for $30 million in 2012, isn’t the only one tackling hearing loss. Decibel Therapeutics, a company launched by Third Rock Ventures with $52 million in 2015, is working on a portfolio of potential treatments — including one based on gene-silencing technology — in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood under another serial entrepreneur, Steven Holtzman.

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Most current treatments for hearing loss are devices such as hearing aids and implants that amplify sound but don’t help people distinguish background noise from regular noise.

The approach Frequency is taking, called progenitor cell activation, was pioneered by Langer’s and Karp’s labs and detailed in February in the scientific journal Cell Reports. By enabling progenitor cells to divide and differentiate, like naturally regenerating skin tissue, Lucchino believes it also has the potential to treat other conditions ranging from diabetes to gastrointestinal diseases.

Lead investor Cobro Ventures, a venture capital firm owned by brothers Marc and Alain Cohen, is no stranger to Boston area biotech. It previously backed Acetylon Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Boston company developing drugs to treat blood cancer and other diseases, which was sold for an undisclosed sum last year to biotech giant Celgene Corp. Marc Cohen is serving as chairman of Frequency’s board of directors.

From left: Bob Langer, Jeff Karp, and David Lucchino founded Frequency.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

From left: Bob Langer, Jeff Karp, and David Lucchino founded Frequency.

Robert Weisman
can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the type of treatment Frequency is working on. It is an injection.

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