This Better Hearing & Speech month, New HRP Research Projects Commence

By Tara Guastella

In conjunction with Better Hearing & Speech month this May, I'm excited to share that HHF is funding, for the third consecutive year, new research grants for our Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) consortium. This year is exciting as our HRP scientists are finishing up the first of three phases of the Strategic Research Plan. This plan defines our road-map to clinical trials for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus within a decade.

Many types of hearing loss result from damage to the delicate hair cells of the inner ear. Humans can't regenerate these cells-but in a game-changing breakthrough in 1987, HHF-funded scientists discovered that birds can. Over the last several years, the HRP scientists have produced new genomic datasets from fish and birds, which show regeneration, and mouse, which does not; these datasets now allow us to take the next steps in understanding which genes promote regeneration in some animals and which genes block it in others.

“The 2014 funded projects will continue to move us closer to our goal of inducing hair-cell regeneration in people, to produce a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus," shares Peter G. Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., director of the HRP consortium. "I am incredibly pleased with the outcome of the work the HRP consortium members have been conducting over the last several years.”

We are renewing three projects from previous years as well as initiating four new projects, each moving us closer to a cure. There are also four new projects that have commenced on May 1. Here are the details about the new projects:

Led by Andy Groves, Ph.D., Tatjana Piotrowski, Ph.D., and Jennifer Stone, Ph.D., one of the new projects is focusing on bioinformatic analysis of genetic data collected throughout Phase I. Bioinformatics is a set of sophisticated computational tools that will allow us to compare genetic data from zebrafish, chickens, and mice. Since we know that zebrafish and chickens spontaneously regenerate their inner ear hair cells, we can compare their genetic data to that of mice, which like mammals do not regenerate hair cells. Once we know what genes, or series of genes (known as pathways), trigger regeneration in zebrafish and chickens, and which inhibit it in mice, we will have better targets for drug therapies that may be able to induce regeneration in humans.

Another new project building off of work started in Phase I is analyzing the inner ears of chickens. Chickens have a remarkable ability to regrow hair cells once they are damaged. The consortium members involved—Stefan Heller, Ph.D., Michael Lovett, Ph.D., Jennifer Stone, Ph.D., and Mark Warchol, Ph.D.—are using newly developed techniques to study how supporting cells react when neighboring hair cells die and which signaling pathways are activated or deactivated. They are also are determining if this new technique, known as single cell transcript analysis, can be used more broadly in analyzing regenerative capabilities.

Edwin Rubel, Ph.D., who is also known as the co-founder of hair cell regeneration in chickens, is working on the characterization of a mouse system in which the inner ear hair cells can be reproducibly removed from the inner ear without doing damage to other components of the inner ear. Such a "model system" would allow the systematic study of hair cell regeneration at any age and in live animals.

Finally, Alain Dabdoub, Ph.D. and Albert Edge, Ph.D. are collaborating on a project studying the signaling molecules in the Wnt pathway to better understand its role in regeneration. Wnt signaling has been shown to play a major role in stem cell biology, cell proliferation, and cell fate determination.

“As a person living with hearing loss, I am thrilled with the progress that the HRP consortium is making,” says Shari Eberts, the chairman of HHF’s board of directors. “We are funding the best hearing scientists, conducting groundbreaking research, and are on track to see a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus within a decade.”

Read more about all of the currently funded HRP projects and updates on progress from past research as well.

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