(Adds comments from Audion managing director)
LONDON, June 16 (Reuters) - French drugmaker Sanofi (SASY.PA) said on Thursday it was starting a hunt for medicines to treat hearing loss, after signing a two-year research deal with privately held Dutch biotech firm Audion Therapeutics.
There are currently no disease-modifying prescription drugs for hearing loss, which affects nearly a third of people aged 65 to 74 and half of those over 75.
Audion hopes to develop small molecule drugs to improve hearing. Its first drug discovery programme is focused on regenerating lost inner ear hair cells, the main cause of most hearing loss.
The work is still at a very early stage but Audion has identified several compounds that can regenerate hair cells in laboratory tests.
Rolf Jan Rutten, managing director of the Dutch company, said giving a drug as a pill would be ideal but may be difficult, since it is unclear whether the oral route will deliver the required dose to the inner ear.
Initially, therefore, Audion is looking at injecting drugs through the ear drum -- a procedure that is already used, for example, to give steroids to patients with imbalance disorders.
Under the terms of the agreement, Sanofi has an option to license technology rights from Audion. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Audion has technologies and molecules that originate from the work of one of its founders, Albert Edge, at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. (Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Andrew Callus and Jon Loades-Carter)