Meet Professor Marcelo Rivolta, Founder & Chief Scientific Officer

What led you to found Rinri in 2018?

Rinri was born out of an ambition to take what had been developed in a lab into the clinic. I trained as a medical doctor, although I don’t practice now, and for me it is very important to translate what we are testing and to give it real clinical application. I have been working on a therapy for hearing loss for over 50 years, and specifically on this project since the early ‘00s. In 2018 I felt we had a good enough evidential base with which to make the leap.

What is your role in the company now?

As founder, I am part of the board of directors, however I am also involved in the everyday management of the company as its Chief Scientific Officer. This means I drive and oversee the scientific strategy that we use to develop therapies and plan the development of future treatments and products.

Are you still in the lab at all?

A little bit! I’m not involved in as many experiments as I would like to be, but every now and again I manage to get drawn into one. I tend to contribute to the discussion and analysis of data, pulling things together with the clinicians, but I don’t actually have the pipette in my hand. It’s a shame but your professional role has to evolve over time.

What was it about hearing loss that attracted you particularly?

It was a combination of biology and my medical drive that attracted me to the area. I am originally from Argentina and did my medical degree there, before moving to the US to do my fellowship at the National Institute for Deafness and Communication. I find the hearing organ fascinating: it’s so complex, and the way that it’s developed, that it’s arranged, is just a marvel of biology. That was the initial scientific attraction.

I also really wanted to do something that would have an impact and a medical application. Working at this institute I got to know a lot of people who suffered hearing loss of some form or another, or who were profoundly deaf, and I became more and more aware of this unmet medical need. For the last 40 years, the only options available to patients have been prosthetic devices: cochlear implants and hearing aids. They have been great, but they are not the real thing and there is currently no biological treatment or cure for the condition.

And hearing loss really affects people’s lives, particularly if you have had the sense for most of your life and then lost it. If you are in the early stages at school, it can impact the way you learn and the way you interact with people later in life. Hearing loss affects elderly people greatly too, making it very difficult to have social interactions at a time in their life when they need them most. They start to feel more ostracised and reluctant to engage because they just can’t hear. And there is also an element of shame, because sometimes people don’t want to disclose that they have trouble hearing, and they just log out of the conversation instead.

So, it has very substantial implications: socially and economically. And there is a real opportunity to make a difference here that is really appealing to me.

Talk me through the Rinri name. 

As I said, I’m from Argentina, so I wanted to pick something that has relevance to Argentina. Many company names are derived from classical languages like Latin or Greek, so I went with Quechua – the language that was originally spoken by the indigenous people of South America. In Quechua Rinri means ear. It is a very phonetic and onomatopoeic language and I think it has a lovely ring to it.

What does Rinri’s work mean to you?

Rinri’s work is central to my professional life. I have spent about 30 years in the hearing and deafness field, and about 20 years on this particular project, so being able to take it all the way to the clinic would be incredibly fulfilling. As a medical doctor, I always wanted to do this kind of translational work with the possibility of helping and alleviating peoples’ suffering and limitations.

We all know someone affected by hearing loss, either from personal or professional experience, because it is so prevalent, so common. Although it isn’t life threatening, it has an enormous impact on a patient’s quality of life and if we can get this therapy to work, it will be a real game changer.

Can you describe a typical day in your working life?

Every day is different. I usually start early: I try to be in the office, in the lab before the activities start, because then you have some quiet time to sort out emails and messages and general admin. And then I focus on planning, on supporting the team, on running the experiments, addressing particular needs for events taking place that day, attending meetings with the rest of the team, and discussing results or strategies.

I am also still an academic. I am a university professor teaching stem cell biology to biomedical science students, and I have very good students in that area. I have had masters and PhD students, and I also have university administration duties. So, my day is very varied.

Can you tell me more about the clinical trials and your strategy?

We want to get Rinri to a point where we can replicate in the human patient, what we have been developing in the animal trials. There are two key cell types in the ear which can get affected and produce deafness: One is the hair cell, which converts sound into an electrical signal, and the other is the neuron, which is the cable that connects to the hair cell to the brain.

These are the two cell types which are really important in the cochlea, and when they are damaged, they cannot be restored. They don’t regenerate. So those are the cells that in principle we are trying to replace using stem cells.

Our current focus is the neuron – the cable that connects the hair cell to the brain. This is for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that when we lose hair cells, we have cochlear implants that can replace them, but they still need the nerve to connect to the brain. So, our first therapy is focused on replacing the neurons. We are working on replacing the hair cells but that will be further into the future.

The idea is to make the cells in the test tube and, then to apply them to patients, either for them to reconnect with the hair cells, or to interact with the cochlear implant. So at a very high level, that will be the basis of the clinical trials.

Tell me some of the challenges you face.

Scientific research is very exciting and very rewarding because you’re doing something which in many cases, no one has done before. So, it’s a new discovery, a new testing of ideas, and that makes it really, really exciting. But the price you pay is that it doesn’t always work. There is always the possibility of failure because we don’t fully understand the system. Scientific and biological research is not always linear, and it’s not always guaranteed that if you do A, B and C, that D will follow. Obviously, we try to know as much of the system as possible and try to include and many controls as we can, but there is always this unpredictability, so that is one challenge that we face.

The other challenge we face is the funding: All this work is very expensive and we want to do it, and we have been doing it to a very, very high standard – we don’t cut corners. We have spent a lot of time getting to where we are and that needs economic support, which is difficult to get sometimes, because there is not much money out there all the time. So getting the support and the backing that we need, to do what we want to do, is part of the challenge. I’d say those are the two main things that are difficulties in the field in general.

How do you think and hope Rinri’s work will impact the hearing loss community?

We really think and hope that it will make a big difference. There is no equivalent … there is no treatment for hearing loss currently; there are palliative devices like cochlear implants, but there is no biological, disease modifying treatment. So, what we are proposing to do we think is very original, it’s conceptually very simple – although it’s not simple at all – but if it works it will have the impact of modifying the quality of life for a lot of people. And although now we are focusing on a very specific type of condition, it could be the steppingstone to treating and addressing other problems within this sphere. I think the potential and the impact that we could have in the community is significant.

Professor Marcelo Rivolta