By Nadine Dehgan
This August, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and attended a laboratory tour hosted by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), which is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that makes up the NIH. Organized by the Friends of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus (FCHHC) and in the company of a select group of individuals including Congressional staff members, other hearing organizations, and NIH staff, we first met in the Porter Neuroscience Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The research center’s name honors former U.S. House of Representative member John Edward Porter, a huge supporter of biomedical research. He was largely responsible for leading the charge to double the NIH budget from 2003-2011. Rep. Porter was also the vice chairman of the Foundation for the NIH, and still holds many other public service roles.
James Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., the NIDCD Director, reviewed NIDCD operations and showed how the research funding supports seven mission areas in hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language. He also mentioned the recently released National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Hearing Health Care Consensus Report (whose recommendations HHF supports). Dr. Battey was warm and approachable and accompanied the visitors throughout the tour answering questions.
Andrew Griffith, M.D., Ph.D., the NIDCD Scientific Director and Chief of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Section, provided us with a detailed explanation of the NIDCD’s intramural research program. “Intramural” refers to the internal research conducted on the NIH campus and usually is only 10% of an Institute’s entire budget. Dr. Griffith underscored the benefits of this unique funding environment that allows the investigators to conduct both long-term and high-risk, high-reward science that would otherwise be difficult to undertake in academia and private industry.
The NIDCD is one of ten neuroscience Institutes with labs housed in the newly constructed Porter Neuroscience Building. Prior to the building’s construction, these labs were spread across eight separate locations. Now, the labs are organized by scientific research topic to allow researchers to share resources and allow for easy collaboration. Research includes basic and clinical neuroscience research, including investigating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. (See the detailed listof topic areas that comprise more than 800 scientists in 85 labs.)
The facilities are bright, state-of-the-art, and energy efficient. It is the most energy-efficient science lab in the entire world! It uses solar panels, geothermal wells, and has a special chilled beam air-conditioning system that requires a fraction of energy regular systems use. At 50,000 sq. ft, it is also one of the largest research buildings in the world dedicated to studying the brain.
The tour took us to the labs of Doris Wu, Ph.D., Chief of the Sensory Cell Regeneration and Development Section, who discussed her studies of the development of the inner ear in mice and chickens, in particular her work to identify the molecular processes involved. Dr. Wu is also a member of HHF’s Scientific Advisory Board, which provides oversight and guidance to our Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) consortium of researchers.
She paint-filled an embryonic mouse inner ear and let us view it. I put on a pair of gloves and saw how tiny it was in the petri dish (less than 2mm in length) and then what it looked like magnified. As the day went on, I grew more and more impressed with the technical aspects of scientific hearing research.
In Dr. Griffith's lab, he discussed how his team helps those with genetic hearing loss. By identifying specific genes that are mutated in families, in certain cases, he can develop personalized therapies to address the cause of the hearing loss and prevent it. Dr. Griffith also discussed exciting research from another NIDCD lab that is using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology to create and test therapies. This amazing editing tool has been touted as being faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous gene editing technologies; HRP researcher John Brigande, Ph.D., is also using it in his current HRP project.
It was a super impressive tour—the scientists and administration are all friendly, smart, and most importantly dedicated to advancing hearing science. It’s so refreshing to meet so many people who are committed to the advancement of humankind and to uncovering discoveries that will lead to improvements in the quality of life and health of so many.
HHF is very happy to partner with the NIDCD and its research goals, which Dr. Battey wrote about in the Summer 2016 issue of Hearing Health magazine. We are also very proud the majority of early-career scientists we support through our Emerging Research Grants program go on to earn additional funding from the NIH, underscoring the importance of the innovative research both our institutions believe is worthy.