What would you think if someone told you that a baby chick holds the cure for hearing loss? One of the keys to restoring normal hearing in humans is cochlear hair cell regeneration, something that most animals other than mammals, including chickens, can do. The Hearing Health Foundation recently launched a new public service announcement (PSA) called “Chirp the News” which features a baby chick with hearing loss who goes on to live a happy, normal-hearing life. After viewing it, my curiosity was piqued. I had an opportunity to ask Shari Eberts, Chairman of the HHF’s Board of Directors, a couple of questions and wanted to share what I learned.
Question: For those that are not familiar with your organization, what is the Hearing Health Foundation and/or what is the Foundation’s mission?
Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) is the largest private funder of hearing research, with a mission to prevent and cure hearing loss and tinnitus through groundbreaking research. Since 1958 HHF has given away millions of dollars to hearing and balance research, including work that led to cochlear implant technology and now through the Hearing Restoration Project is working on a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus. Hearing Health Foundation also publishes Hearing Health magazine, a free consumer resource on hearing loss and related technology, research, and products.
Question: Shari, it is my understanding that you acquired a hearing loss in your late 20′s. Can you tell me a little bit about how your hearing loss was identified, the cause of your hearing loss, and how it has impacted your personal and professional lives?
I first noticed my hearing loss in business school. Students were participating in class, and I would sometimes miss their comments, particularly the funny ones that were made almost as an aside. My father and my grandmother both had a hearing loss, so I figured I should get tested. It turns out that I had a mild hearing loss in both ears. The loss is genetic and is centered in the mid-range or speech frequencies. Luckily, my high pitch hearing is almost perfect. My loss has gotten progressively worse each year since business school, but I am able to manage it with hearing aids and by advocating for myself. At first, I didn’t want to admit that I had a hearing loss, and I hid it from others, but eventually I began to realize how much better my life could be if I used my hearing aids, and I began wearing them all the time. I am glad that I do.
As someone who lives with hearing loss everyday, I am personally thrilled with the prospects for a cure. Life with hearing loss can be frustrating. Sometimes you miss the joke when everyone else is laughing and sometimes you miss important information because you don’t hear it. Supportive family and friends can make living with hearing loss easier, but a genuine cure would be life changing. After having met and worked with our consortium scientists for these past two years, I am confident that we will have a cure in my lifetime. I am counting the days.
Question: Knowing that you acquired a hearing loss in your late 20′s, it makes sense that you would be passionate about educating people about hearing loss and learning about various research focusing on a cure. With so many different organizations dedicated to hearing loss, what made you specifically gravitate toward Hearing Health Foundation? What makes this organization so unique?
HHF’s approach to research is unique and I believe it will shorten the timeline to a cure. For years, scientific research has been conducted in relative isolation—one researcher or one institution working alone to tackle a major health issue. HHF developed the HRP Consortium model to do things differently. Our HRP scientists work on research projects together, share their unpublished data and tools, and collaborate on the development and refinement of the HRP’s strategic research plan. The group meets bi-annually in person, monthly by conference call, and communicates frequently by email. This continual dialogue is helping to eliminate repetitive work across the team, saving time and research dollars, and most importantly, accelerating the timetable to a cure.
Our HRP Consortium is the dream team of hair cell regeneration, comprising the best auditory scientists at leading institutions worldwide such as Harvard and Stanford. With more than 200 years of combined experience in hearing research, the HRP Consortium publishes widely (over 400 published papers among them) and have well established labs (receiving over 600 NIH grants combined). We have every confidence we have the right team in place, and the right model to accelerate the timeline to a cure.
Question: The Hearing Health Foundation was established in 1958 and had been seeking donations from the public to help fund “groundbreaking research” for the prevention of and cure for hearing loss. Can you provide a historical synopsis of some of the more significant research achieved by the Foundation since its inception?
HHF’s founder, Collette Ramsey Baker, was steadfast in her support of funding for new technologies and treatments for hearing loss. For example, back in the 1960s, HHF began funding research into cochlear implant technology. HHF’s founder, Collette Ramsey Baker, prevailed despite objections and doubts from supporters that she was wasting money. Cochlear implants have proven to be a valuable treatment option for people with profound hearing loss, benefiting 125,000 people in the U.S. and 300,000 people worldwide. HHF has also research that led to the development of many of today’s standard treatments for otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the ear) and ear infections. In the 1990s, HHF was a leader in advocating for Universal Newborn Hearing Screening legislation, which increased testing from 5% of newborns to 94% by 2007. In 2011, HHF launched our most important project yet, the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), which aims to discover a biological cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.
Question: What research is the Foundation currently working on that is anticipated to have a significant and/or practical impact on hearing loss prevention and/or cure within the next 10 years?
HHF officially launched its Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) in 2011 and is currently funding 5 projects from its consortium scientists, but the initial discovery that led to the HRP came many years before. Many types of hearing loss result from damage to the delicate hair cells of the inner ear. Humans can’t regrow these cells—but in a game-changing breakthrough in 1987, HHF-funded scientists discovered that birds can. While studying how drugs that are known to cause hearing damage affect the tiny sensory cells in the ear, these scientists needed to permanently damage a chicken’s hair cells. For 10 days, research assistants administered a common antibiotic, known to cause hearing loss, to laboratory chickens. On day 11 many of the hair cells were lost and a few days later, even more were lost. Surprisingly, when the scientists looked three weeks later, almost all the hair cells had returned. They didn’t believe these results so they did the experiment again and again. Sure enough, chickens can naturally regenerate their inner ear hair cells, restoring their hearing after damage.
The amazing thing is that regeneration happens naturally and very robustly in almost all animals – mammals are the exception. This makes HHF and the researchers confident that we will find a way to stimulate this regeneration in mammals, including humans.
The HRP consortium of scientists has developed a strategic research plan to develop a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus in 10 years. This three-phase plan starts with discovery research and culminates in clinical trials. The plan, developed specifically by the HRP scientists and updated to incorporate new findings and approaches, is a living document meant to guide but not limit the work. Relevance to this strategic plan is one of the criteria for a project to receive HRP funding.
The HRP is currently in Phase I of its strategic research plan (years 1-5). This first phase focuses on searching for the genes or series of genes that trigger natural regeneration of hair cells in animals such as birds and zebrafish. This phase will also examine which genes in mammals prevent the natural regeneration of hair cells. Finally, Phase I will determine the types of cells in mammals’ ears that could serve as available targets for regeneration therapies. Phase II (years 3-8) starts with the residual cells that remain in a mammal’s inner ear after hearing loss and uses the genes identified in Phase I to trigger hair cell regeneration. In Phase III (years 8-10), the HRP Consortium will partner with a pharmaceutical or other company to develop drugs that mimic the identified genes, resulting in a regenerative therapy.
Question: How can audiologists and other hearing health care providers get involved with the Hearing Health Foundation?
HHF is always eager to partner with hearing health care providers! In fact, we have developed a brochure specifically for use by hearing health care providers that includes important information for their patients about how hearing works, the types of hearing loss, and common treatment solutions. It also lets patients know about the resources HHF can offer, like its free quarterly magazine. Hearing Health Magazine is the award-winning leading consumer publication on hearing loss filled with the latest on research breakthroughs, strategies to manage hearing loss, personal stories, hearing technologies and products and features on seniors, pediatrics, parents, musicians, veterans and more! Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are a hearing health care professional and would like copies of our patient brochure or magazine.
Question: How can the general public support the mission and goals of the Hearing Health Foundation?
There are lots of ways for people to learn more about HHF and help support our research for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.
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Shari Eberts is Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Hearing Health Foundation, an organization whose mission is to prevent and cure hearing loss and tinnitus via collaborative, groundbreaking research. She received her BS from Duke University in 1990 and MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1995. Previously employed by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company, Shari spent 13 years at J.P. Morgan in the capacity of a senior equity analyst (broadlines retail) and, most recently as Associate Director of U.S. Equity Research. This mom of two and former Wall-Streeter joined HHR in 2010 and has committed herself to supporting the search for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.