By Yishane Lee
The cornerstone of Hearing Health Foundation for six decades has been funding early-career hearing and balance researchers through its Emerging Research Grants (ERG) program. Many ERG scientists have gone on to obtain prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to continue their HHF-funded research; since 1958, each dollar awarded to ERG scientists by HHF has been matched by NIH investments of more than $90. Within the scientific community, ERG is a competitive grant awarded to the most promising investigators, and we’re always especially pleased when our ERG alumni who are now also members of or affiliated with our Hearing Restoration Project consortium make headlines in the mainstream news for their scientific breakthroughs.
Ronna Hertzano, M.D., Ph.D. (2009–10): Hearing Restoration Project consortium member Hertzano, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and colleagues identified a gene, Ikzf2, that acts as a key regulator for outer hair cells whose loss is a major cause of age-related hearing loss. The Ikzf2 gene encodes helios, a transcription factor (a protein that controls the expression of other genes). The mutation of the gene in mice impairs the activity of helios in the mice, leading to an outer hair cell deficit.
Reporting in the Nov. 21, 2018, issue of Nature, the team tested whether the opposite effect could be created—if an abundance of helios could boost the population of outer hair cells. They introduced a virus engineered to overexpress helios into the inner ear hair cells of newborn mice, and found that some mature inner hair cells became more like outer hair cells by exhibiting electromotility, a property limited to outer hair cells. The finding that helios can drive inner hair cells to adopt critical outer hair cell characteristics holds promise for future treatments of age-related hearing loss.
Patricia White, Ph.D. (2009, 2011), with Hearing Restoration Project member Albert Edge, Ph.D.: White, a research associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Edge, a professor of otolaryngology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Harvard Medical School, and team have been able to regrow the sensory hair cells found in the mouse cochlea. The study, published in the European Journal of Neuroscience on Sep. 30, 2018, builds on White’s prior research that identified a family of receptors called epidermal growth factor (EGF) that is responsible for activating supporting cells in the auditory organs of birds. When triggered, these cells proliferate and foster the generation of new sensory hair cells. In mice, EGF receptors are expressed but do not drive regeneration of hair cells, so it could be that as mammals evolved, the signaling pathway was altered.
The new study aimed to unblock the regeneration of hair cells and also integrate them with nerve cells, so they are functional, by switching the EGF signaling pathway to act as it does in birds. The team focused on a specific receptor called ERBB2, found in supporting cells. They used a number of methods to activate the EGF signaling pathway: a virus targeting ERBB2 receptors; mice genetically altered to overexpress activated ERBB2; and two drugs developed to stimulate stem cell activity in the eye and pancreas that are already known to activate ERBB2 signaling. The researchers found that activating the ERBB2 pathway triggered a cascading series of cellular events: Supporting cells began to proliferate and started the process of activating other neighboring stem cells to lead to “apparent supernumerary hair cell formation,” and these hair cells’ integration with the network of neurons was also supported.