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Hearing Health Foundation (HHF)’s Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) is an international research consortium focused on investigating inner ear hair cell regeneration.

Through Spotlight On, HHF aims to connect our supporters and constituents to our HRP consortium researchers. We hope this helps you get to know the life and work of this top-tier team of research professionals who knows that pooling their talents will accelerate the timeline to a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.

Current Institution: Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU)
Education: Reed College, B.A.; University of Washington, Ph.D.; University of California, San Francisco, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Postdoctoral Fellowships

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My lab focuses on understanding the molecular basis of hair cell mechanotransduction and hair bundle assembly. Hair cells use their cluster of stereocilia—the hair bundle—to detect sound; the conversion of sound into electrical signals in the cell is called
mechanotransduction.

Mechanotransduction distinguishes these cells from all others, and without it there is no hearing. We want to understand how this process works at a molecular level—which proteins come together in the cell to make the machine that allows the mechanical-to-electrical conversion. We’re interested in these molecules as many of them are encoded by essential deafness genes, but also because the mechanotransduction process is intrinsically interesting.

Why hearing research?
As an undergraduate I became interested in sensory transduction, the conversion of a sensory stimulus that is external to the body to a signal that is internal, and worked on visual transduction as a graduate student. For my postdoctoral degree, I wanted to work on a problem that was wide open, and the molecular characterization of hair cell transduction certainly fit the bill. Understanding how hair cells work at a molecular level is immensely challenging yet exceptionally interesting—something worthy of spending a career investigating, as I’ve done.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Our knowledge of how things work develops slowly through the hit-or-miss nature of everyday experiments. Sometimes there are amazing results that push us forward quickly, but more often it’s the grind of experiments—some that work, most that don’t—that slowly allows a picture of the biological process in question to be revealed. I enjoy the gradual reveal as much as the “aha!” moments.

Describe a typical day.
As a part-time administrator at OHSU, I spend a substantial fraction of my day in front of the computer or in meetings. For my research program, I am often analyzing data, while also preparing figures and writing text for papers and grants, tasks I find enjoyable. It’s not enough to just do the science—it needs to be communicated well to have an impact.

If you had not become a researcher what would you have done?
Believe it or not, a mountain climbing guide! I worked as a guide for three summers in the 1970s, and in 1980 faced a career-defining decision—take a summer fellowship from the American Heart Association to work in a lab at OHSU, or take a climbing guide job in Washington’s North Cascades. I decided to work at OHSU and that project led to my senior thesis. I got hooked on science.

What has been a highlight/memorable moment of your career?
In 1994, I was awarded a Pew Scholar fellowship as a young assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. Not only did this award provide my lab with much-needed unrestricted funds just as we were getting started, it also supported travel to a yearly meeting that exposed me to outstanding science with some of the brightest young researchers in the country.

What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
As the scientific director, I have a different relationship with the consortium than the other members have with one another. I am responsible for ensuing progress is being made and advising the HRP scientists on their experiments and their research direction. It is gratifying to witness the collaborative spirit of the HRP, which inspires me to be similarly collaborative in my own lab.

What do you hope for HRP over the next few years?
While basic knowledge of how hair cells and supporting cells develop and regenerate has expanded, in order to achieve our goal of a finding a therapy for hearing restoration, there is far more that we need to learn. The consortium’s focus on a smaller number of more central projects is a good step in the right direction, but we need much more basic research in our area if we are going to have a real impact. I’m not referring just to the HRP, but to the whole hearing restoration field as a whole—we are woefully underfunded. With increased basic science research I am hopeful that the consortium will be able to connect the dots and understand how to restore hearing through hair cell regeneration.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
More dollars for research, to better support the labs and research efforts of the HRP consortium scientists. The HRP consortium of 13 talented researchers finds their time fragmented as they have multiple funders they are accountable to. Should HHF become each of these scientists’ largest funder, which is currently not the case, the consortium would be able to devote a greater amount of their time, energy, and expertise toward developing a biological therapy to restore human hearing through hair cell regeneration. Recent pressures on the National Institutes of Health budget has impacted the HRP’s research advancements; the NIH funds a large portion of each consortium member’s lab, and the increased difficulty in obtaining NIH grants has slowed down progress toward hair cell regeneration as well. Your support can help us acheive our shared goal, faster.

Current Institution: University of Maryland School of Medicine
Education: Harvard University, B.A.; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ph.D.

  Credit:   Jhsiao-Ching Chou

Credit: Jhsiao-Ching Chou

What is your area of focus?
My lab specializes in using biological big data to understand complex human traits, especially those related to the brain and sensory systems. For instance, we are studying data generated by other groups in the HRP that relate to the expression and regulation of genes in the sensory organs of the inner ear. We integrate these data with information about the genetic risk for hearing loss and information about how proteins interact with one another inside cells. In biology, it is often true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, by putting all of hese data together, we can learn things that wouldn’t be apparent from any one experiment.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
I got hooked on scientific research at a pretty early age. I had the good fortune to grow up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a “science village” that is home to several world-class oceanographic research institutions. I began working in Woods Hole labs when I was in high school, initially studying the behavior of marine animals.

Why hearing research?
I am new to hearing research, having spent most of my career studying the genetics of behavioral traits and of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, all of which involve changes in gene regulation in specific cell types in the brain or sensory organs. When I joined the University of Maryland School of Medicine, HRP member Ronna Hertzano, M.D., Ph.D., encouraged me to apply my expertise to hearing loss research. Ronna’s team works to identify regulators of gene expression in hair cell development, which complements my work. Conveniently, her lab is located in a building adjacent to the Institute for Genome Sciences, where I am based, and it has been rewarding to work together on a variety of projects related to the genomics of hearing loss. Hearing loss impacts millions of people in the United States and around the world. I’m excited that our research might make a difference.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Making discoveries! Scientific research is technically and intellectually demanding. We may imagine that discoveries come in a flash. The reality is important insights often come gradually, built up over a variety of distinct experiments.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have done?
I would probably have become a professional musician. After graduating from Harvard, I entered a master’s program in cello performance at Boston University, while working about 20 hours a week in a science lab to pay the bills. At the time, my research focused on the neurobiological mechanisms of social behavior in ants. I quickly found that while I loved music, I was even more passionate for science. So I applied for Ph.D. programs in neuroscience. I think I made the right decision, but it’s fun to see what all of my musician friends are doing these days and think about how different my life might have been!

Describe a typical day.
As a computational biologist, most of my research involves computers. I write computer scripts to apply algorithms that we have developed to glean insights from genomic data. These days, most of the work in the lab is performed by graduate and postdoctoral students, so I spend a lot of my time meeting with students to help them design new analyses and interpret their results.

Which mentor do you find the most inspirational?
I’ve been lucky to have terrific mentors throughout my career. In grad school, I worked with Gene Robinson, Ph.D., an amazing scientist who pioneered the use of genomics to study honeybee social behavior. As a postdoc, I worked with Lee Hood, M.D., Ph.D., and Nathan Price, Ph.D. Lee is a truly astounding individual who was a central figure in the Human Genome Project and then helped found the field of systems biology. Nathan has made a number of important advances in computational biology.

How has the collaborative effort helped your research?
Collaborative “big science” approaches are increasingly important in biology. Solving tough, multidisciplinary problems requires teams of scientists with complementary expertise. The HRP is a good example of this.

What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
HRP researchers have generated several large datasets over the past few years, which describe molecular changes in multiple models of hair cell development and regeneration. Our challenge over the next one to two years is to integrate these data to identify actionable insights in the form of specific genes that are capable of driving regeneration.

Current Institution: Oregon Hearing Research Center, Oregon Health & Science University
Education: Doctorate, Master’s, and Bachelor of Science degrees from Boston College

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
Our lab endeavors to define therapies to restore hearing and balance in mice that accurately model human forms of inner ear disease. One of every 1,000 births produces a child with deafness, and about another two children out of 1,000 will be diagnosed with significant hearing loss within the first year of life. Our goal is to develop therapies to restore hearing and balance function at birth, or shortly thereafter.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research? Why hearing research?
Research chose me more than I chose research. I have severe to profound hearing loss of unknown cause and intimately understand the challenges and frustration a hearing impaired person faces while trying to communicate effectively. About 40 percent of the time I fill the gaps in a conversation with what I think I hear. I use adaptive strategies to communicate, including visual cues and assistive listening technologies. But what if we could define biological therapies to restore auditory (and balance) function? Could we get a more natural, effective outcome for patients?

What is the most exciting part of your research?
We are testing the idea that gene or drug therapies to treat hearing loss present at birth may be best initiated as the inner ear is still developing. Since the mammalian inner ear forms in the early embryo and matures during fetal development, we need to figure out ways to introduce genes and drugs through the uterus to the inner ear. The embryonic environment is an underwater world that I will spend my career trying to fully understand.

If you had not become a researcher what would you have done?
I cannot imagine life without the lab. As the character Vizzini says repeatedly in the movie “The Princess Bride,” “Inconceivable!” That’s how I feel about an alternative career to developmental neuroscience: Inconceivable!

What has been a highlight or a memorable moment of your career?
In 2004, eight months after starting my work at the Oregon Hearing Research Center, I rushed into Peter Steyger’s office late one evening and asked him to look at fragments of an embryonic mouse cochlea expressing green fluorescent protein. (Dr. Steyger is a member of HHF’s Council of Scientific Trustees, which he chaired, and also a former HHF board member.) This meant—for the first time—that we were able to genetically manipulate the mouse cochlea in utero using DNA from a jellyfish and electric current. We talked for over an hour about the next steps. I’ll always remember that first green cochlea!

What is the best part of the HRP consortium? How has the collaborative effort furthered your research?
The best part is the community—we are all part of the consortium because we believe that cross discipline collaboration is an important and necessary way to advance hair cell regeneration research. Collaboration is the key to the HRP’s success. For example, my primary role involves establishing mouse model systems to test candidate genes for hair cell regeneration. Before I began my research, I collected group input on what an ideal mouse model system should be. To achieve this goal, I will start with a mouse model generated by Dr. Albert Edge and Dr. Stefan Heller; include another model created by Dr. Ed Rubel that he characterized with Dr. Jenny Stone and colleagues; and then add our expertise with gene transfer to the cochlea. That’s the work of five consortium members on one model system! The collaborative effort enables us to do science that very likely would not be possible alone.

Which scientist or mentor do you find the most inspirational?
Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., the HRP’s scientific director. He guides the consortium through the nuts and bolts of the work we do and helps us advance the science by challenging our thought processes. He has deftly managed a group of smart, creative, and passionate researchers. I have a great deal of trust in Peter’s guidance, and I find his leadership to be truly inspired by an authentic passion to advance hair cell regeneration research.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next five years?
Over the next five years, I expect that we will have identified novel candidate genes for hair cell regeneration and that we will have validated these genes in the chick, fish, and mouse model systems. This will then usher in the third phase of the strategic plan: drug discovery based on validated genes and pathways.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
We need more money to support additional research. There are nearly 50 million people in the United States with hearing loss. We—the hearing impaired—are so numerous that we have the critical mass to raise the money needed to more rapidly advance scientific discovery. That’s empowerment at its best! I believe strongly that the work of the HRP will contribute to new and improved treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.

Current Institution: Sunnybrook Research Institute, University of Toronto.
Education: Bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Maryland. Postdoc at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My research focuses on discovering and understanding the molecules responsible for the development of the mammalian cochlea. In my laboratory we are specifically interested in sensory hair cells and auditory neurons, as these cell types do not regenerate when damaged in humans and other mammals, and hearing is impaired. Our aim is to understand how these cochlear cells are generated during development in order to guide strategies for regeneration.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
I have always been interested in science, especially biology. I think it’s the thrill of investigating the unknown and every now and then having a discovery.

Why hearing research?
My Ph.D. training was in biophysics and electrophysiology in vision research, and I wanted to continue working in the senses. Then a great opportunity presented itself to do postdoctoral work in Matthew Kelley, Ph.D.’s laboratory. He was relocating to the NIDCD, where I joined him. His research focuses on cochlear development, and unfortunately still today, the number of people working in hearing and balance restoration is relatively small. Here at Sunnybrook/University of Toronto I am working on expanding the only group of basic researchers dedicated to biological hearing regeneration in Canada.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab?
Being outdoors. My wife is a field conservation biologist with a research site in the North Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil, our 9-year-old son is passionate about playing sports, and our 11-year-old daughter is very much into nature. All this gives us opportunities to enjoy the outdoors whether to play ball, hike locally, or map new trails in the rainforest in Brazil.

What has been a highlight for you from the HRP consortium collaboration so far?
The collaborative spirit and expertise of the HRP consortium enhances the discussion, the approach, and the experimental design of our research. For example, one of the molecular pathways studied intensively is Wnt signaling, due to its key role in guiding inner ear development and its therapeutic implications for tissue renewal. In a collaboration with Albert Edge, Ph.D., an HRP researcher at Harvard, we recently published a study identifying all the Wnt pathway molecules expressed in the embryonic and adult cochlea. Now our goal is to identify the mechanisms through which Wnt signaling controls the growth of cells and the types of cells in the developing cochlea. This will
enhance our understanding of how to regrow sensory hair cells in the damaged adult cochlea. These types of collaborations form the fabric of our consortium, making our research better and faster.

How has collaboration helped your own research?
In my lab the mammalian mouse cochlea has been the focus of our research as a model system for the human auditory system. The discussion and expertise present in the HRP has expanded our work to other model systems, including the chicken and zebrafish, for their regenerative capacity. Recently my group began investigating the mammalian vestibular system responsible for balance, since hair cell death in these organs leads to balance disorders. We have started working on mouse vestibular organs as well as human vestibular organs taken from surgical patients (whose opposite ear is intact). We hope that experimentation with human tissue will allow us to determine the effectiveness of potential strategies arising from our animal model systems.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next five years?
Since its inception, the HRP consortium has clearly advanced scientific knowledge through collaborative and multidisciplinary research. I expect this to continue and accelerate in the next five years and lead to breakthroughs. While science comes with no guarantees, especially when working on as extremely complicated an issue as hearing restoration, I am optimistic we will be able to eventually accomplish something of great significance.

What is needed to help make the HRP goals happen?
The HRP has been steadily achieving its milestones. However, the ambitious goals of the HRP still lack sufficient funding. In general, financial support is always a major challenge for science, more so these days at both the federal and private levels. In the HRP setting, there are far more worthy research ideas that need to be explored than there are funds to support the investigations and laboratories. While there is no doubt that HHF and its generous donors have been very supportive of the HRP consortium, increased funding will lead to greater research and accelerated discovery toward a cure.

Current Institution: Harvard Medical School
Education: SUNY Albany, B.S.; Medical College, Ph.D.; Harvard Medical School, Postdoctoral Fellowship

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography


What is your area of focus?
When mammalian hair cells are damaged or die, the result is permanent hearing loss. My lab’s goal has been to make new hair cells in the damaged cochlea, starting from cells that remain in the cochlea after damage. We are studying cells in the ear that may be made to differentiate into (turned into) new hair cells by manipulating cell signaling pathways.

Why hearing research?
I am interested in understanding the controls on cell fate and how cells communicate and perform their functions. My graduate and postdoctoral work in the biochemistry and molecular biology of cellular interactions led to an interest in the pathways controlling the differentiation of stem cells into neurons and the use of stem cells for the replacement of neurons in the central nervous system. For me the ear was a perfect model system for the study of cell fate (what cells turn into), as we can measure the consequences of circuit replacement and synapse replacement at both the cellular and whole-organism level.

What do you hope to achieve with your current research?
It is our hope that our research on hair cell regeneration in animal models leads to drug therapies for humans with hair cell loss in the cochlea. Although adult mammalian hair cells do not regenerate, birds and lower vertebrates can regenerate hair cells. Most significantly, we also found that newborn mice can regenerate hair cells after damage.

We are able to use the newborn mouse model to study the specific genes and molecular mechanisms that are important for cell regeneration after damage. Our lab recently found that a series of genes in the Wnt pathway are important for spontaneous regeneration in the newborn mouse cochlea. As the mouse ages, these pathways are attenuated to prevent unwanted cell division. These important checks and balances, however, may be a hindrance for regeneration. Inhibitors of this process of checks and balances may be targets for drugs and may spur hair cell regeneration in mammals that would otherwise be silenced.

Tell us about something you that enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or presenting your research.
I’ve been fortunate to have many trainees from across the globe work in my lab. It’s been a pleasure to get to know the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from around the world as well as to work alongside these scientists. After these postdoctoral fellows have gone back to their home universities I have also been invited to visit their institutions and present my research, and this has led to international collaborations that help to advance the science.

Thanks to my international ties, I was invited to become a visiting professor at Keio University in Japan. This was an honor; I now spend several weeks each year in Japan giving lectures and working with several former fellows in Tokyo who have since become established researchers. This has been a great experience and opportunity because I’ve benefitted greatly from the collaborations with the scientists, as well as been able to immerse myself in their culture and travel around Japan.

What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
Before the HRP, a lot of basic information needed for designing therapies was unknown. This is in part due to the preference of grant committees for interesting hypotheses rather than the cataloguing of basic information. Much of that information—on gene expression in cochlear cells, effects of damage, cells that could serve as a source of new hair cells—is now available to the research community from data generated by the consortium, which I believe will bring great innovation to the field.

How has the collaborative effort helped or furthered your research?
The consortium’s work has provided a wealth of information. The main focus of the HRP is assessing the single cell effects of hair cell loss as well as the activity of genes in single cells during the regeneration process. This can be studied in birds and fish, as well as in newborn mouse models, where regeneration occurs spontaneously. Thanks to the work done in the consortium, we know that supporting cells survive hair cell loss and we are targeting these cells in our ongoing work.

What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
The HRP’s focus is to study pathways that may be able to be targeted for the regeneration of hair cells. In the next few years, I hope we are able to answer questions about hair cell regeneration system such as: What genes are of key importance for spurring regeneration? What genes/pathways can be inhibited? What cells remain after damage? What epigenetic factors control the fate of supporting cells? More funds are needed to find and uncover the answer to these questions, and others that will naturally arise. With HHF’s continued support and the generosity of its donors, the HRP can hopefully expand its research efforts to achieve our shared goal of developing drugs to treat and cure hearing loss.

Current Institution: Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
Education: Undergraduate from the University of Cambridge; Ph.D. from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, London; Postdoc at the California Institute of Technology

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
I am a developmental biologist who uses the ear as a model system to understand the general problem of embryonic development—how do you form something very complicated from very simple beginnings. The inner ear is a tissue that receives extremely precise instructions to form just the right number of cells in the right place at the right time. My lab studies where the ear comes from embryonically, how the cochlea acquires its exquisite pattern, and why sensory hair cells are not replaced in mammals after damage.


Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
I always enjoyed biology and chemistry as a kid and thought it would be more fun than studying medicine. I had a very enthusiastic high school biology teacher who loaned me books on biology and evolution, which made an enormous impression. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I was lucky to have two professors who both won Nobel Prizes, and during my senior year I had the opportunity to do research with one of them. After that, scientific research seemed like the only game in town....

Why hearing research?
I started to study ear development as a postdoctoral fellow in the 1990s because it had received very little attention for decades. The ear appeals to my love of extremes in biology: It has one of the most elaborate three-dimensional structures of any organ; it possesses cells of astonishing mechanical sensitivity; and it can detect sounds over a trillion-fold power range. It is also remarkable to think that our entire auditory experience—conversation, music, the natural world—is captured by just a few thousand sensory cells in each ear!

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Experiments can take months or years to carry out. But every now and then you find something new, and the thrill of realizing that you have found out something that no one else in the world knows about is quite addictive.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the lab?
I am a huge music fan and have a large CD collection. Right now my playlist includes Beethoven sonatas played on a fortepiano, some rare Miles Davis live concerts from 1965, and Howlin’ Wolf albums. As a grad student, I sang at Cambridge and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I also love reading. Despite living in the U.S. for over two decades, I know very little about its history, so I have been trying to educate myself about the Civil War Era. I just finished reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.

What is a memorable moment from your career?
For me, it is the “firsts”—seeing students or postdocs publish their first paper or when someone in my lab gets their first academic position. The nature of science means that most of what is discovered will
become obsolete or surpassed, but the achievements and careers of the people who have come through the lab will hopefully last for much longer.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have done?
To be honest, I never had a “plan B.” I love teaching, and so if I had to give up research, it might be nice to teach biology to undergraduates.

What has been a highlight from the HRP consortium collaboration?
The biggest help has been having collaborators on hand to do experiments that are outside the scope of my own lab. We recently published a paper with another HRP researcher, Stefan Heller, Ph.D., at Stanford, where he helped us analyze gene expression of single cells in the cochlea. We showed that blocking the Notch pathway could cause new hair cells to form in very young animals, but that this approach stops working as animals get older. The explosion of new technology
and techniques means it is harder to do all the experiments you want in your own lab—so collaboration is key.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next year, two years, five years?
I hope we can begin a large-scale testing of candidate drugs or gene manipulations in the next two years. This initial screening will likely be in cell culture systems or in the zebrafish system that some members of the HRP helped to pioneer. In five years, I hope we have lead compounds that have been
validated independently in several HRP labs.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Frankly, funding to keep our research moving forward. A postdoctoral fellow with five to six years of training starts out on a modest salary of about $45,000, plus $12,000 in benefits. So that’s $57,000 before they even pick up a test tube in the lab. Each person will typically use between $15,000- $20,000 a year in supplies and chemicals. Simply maintaining a single cage of mice for one year costs $210, and my lab can use between 300-500 cages of mice for our experiments! HHF and its donors have been extremely generous in their support, however with additional funding the output from the consortium could be significantly greater and accelerate the pace to a cure.

Current Institution: Stanford University
Education: Studied Biology at the University of Mainz, Germany; Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany; Postdoc at The Rockefeller University, New York, NY

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My laboratory seeks to understand how a small patch of embryonic cells forms the inner ear, particularly the sensory hair cells of the cochlea and vestibular organs. We are also very interested in the biology of supporting cells, which in chickens have the ability to regenerate lost hair cells. Another research interest of ours is the use of stem cells to generate inner ear cells “from scratch.”

Why did you decide to pursue scientific research?
As a kid, I convinced my parents to buy me a chemistry lab kit. On numerous occasions the basement needed to be evacuated because of nasty fumes that filled the room. This experience probably gave me an edge when studying science in school, where I had encouraging teachers who inspired interest in neuroscience and genetics. I realized that science provides an endless playing field to connect basic discoveries to the development of useful applications.

Why hearing research?
Serendipity! My Ph.D. thesis focused on how nerve cells are affected by so-called neurotrophic factors. This field of research was popular in the early 1990s because it promised to lead to cures for disorders such as ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. With many researchers already working on finding cures for these conditions, I believed a cure was right around the corner and I’d be out of a job quickly. So I looked for a new challenge and found the laboratory of Jim Hudspeth, an HHF Emerging Research Grantee in 1979 and 1980, whose research focuses on inner ear hair cells. Five minutes with Jim and I was hooked.

What do you enjoy doing when not in the lab?
I enjoy renovating our family’s 65-year-old midcentury modern house one step at a time. After 10 years, I am about half done. I also enjoy camping trips with my wife and dog; we like hiking and being off the grid to recharge our batteries.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have done?
I’ve always felt that research is the best fit for me. I like modern architecture, and although I am not necessarily talented in drawing, I might have liked to do something in that field.

What do you find to be most inspirational?
Interacting with creative people and living in the Bay Area, a region where innovation is cherished and rewarded. All of my mentors have one important trait in common, and that is generosity. They were generous in volunteering their time to discuss wild ideas and scientific problems, giving me resources to explore and experiment. I try to apply this principle to my laboratory group as well. 

What has been a highlight from the HRP consortium collaboration?
The most valuable aspect of the HRP is that we get together as a group and talk about experiments, approaches, and the problems at hand. There are not many researchers focusing on hearing restoration, so bringing them together frequently is very helpful. We meet twice a year in person and once a month via conference calls, which is optimal for fruitful discussions. Having unlimited access to this talented group brings a lot of value.

How has the collaborative effort helped your research?
Without the HRP, I would not have started to focus on chicken hair cell regeneration. The collaborative approach, made possible through funding from HHF, has helped us to implement novel tools and the latest technology. Combining resources and technologies strengthens our research and expedites
projects that help us reach our goal to find a cure for human hearing loss and tinnitus.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next year? Two years? Five years?
I envision that we will have started to fill in some of these missing components and that we have identified ways to reactivate hair cell regeneration in the mammalian cochlea. I also hope that people connected to the cause, such as individuals living with hearing loss and HHF’s generous supporters, remain patient, because science takes time in order to reach a desired result. We are working on a very complicated problem, and with each new discovery we find new roadblocks that need to be eliminated. I dream of the day when these roadblocks are all gone and we do not encounter new ones. This will be the day we realistically can expect a cure.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Ongoing funding. HHF is currently supporting research projects at a dozen laboratories, and increased funding per laboratory would allow for even more research to be conducted. HRP researchers benefit from sharing knowledge and small collaborations, but I feel that large-scale concerted efforts and sustained funding are essential to make the HRP’s goals a reality. Hopefully
one of the currently funded, small-scale, concerted collaborations will lead to a “eureka” moment that will allow us to leapfrog directly to testing new drugs. Finally, patience is a must! Combined, all of the laboratories working on finding cures for hearing loss and tinnitus totals fewer than 500 researchers worldwide. It is a small field with limited resources, but I am very encouraged about the
progress we’ve made so far.

Current Institution: University of Maryland School of Medicine
Education: Tel Aviv University, Sackler School of Medicine, B.Sc., M.D., and Ph.D.

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
I am an otolaryngologist surgeon-scientist. My clinical practice focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the ear, with an emphasis on hearing restoration. I see and treat patients with auditory and vestibular dysfunction (hearing loss and dizziness), including cochlear implantation, and dedicate the remainder of my time to research, where my goal is to make significant contributions toward the treatment of these conditions. In terms of hearing restoration, I work to unravel pathways that lead to the proper development of the ear, specifically the inner ear’s sensory hair cells.

Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
I actually did not plan to be a scientist. In my first summer of medical school I did a research rotation in a cancer laboratory and it felt like the first time I went diving, discovering a new world. The next year, I looked for a laboratory that focused on genetics, as this was my favorite topic in medical school at Tel Aviv University. My mother is an audiologist and I used to visit the rehabilitation center for preschoolers who were deaf or hard of hear and their families  on a regular basis. Karen Avraham, Ph.D., who studies the molecular basis of hearing loss using mouse models and human families with hereditary hearing loss, offered me a summer research position in her laboratory. That summer everything came together. I subsequently switched to the M.D.-Ph.D. track, completed a Ph.D. under the guidance of Dr. Avraham and other mentors, focusing of regulation of gene expression in the ear.

If you had not become a researcher, what would you have done?
I would have joined my family’s business, Rummikub. My grandfather, Efraim Hertzano, developed the tile-based game that combines elements from rummy, dominoes, mah-jongg, and chess when he immigrated to Israel from Romania, where card-playing had been outlawed. His children—my father and aunt—joined the business and turned Rummikub into a game that is now played in 26 languages and in more than 50 countries. I have worked in the company since I was a child, and still serve as a referee for the World Rummikub Championships, which takes place every three years.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Mentorship. The laboratory consists of medical, audiology, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, as well as research staff. The team is wonderful and the gift of being able to teach our students and provide a nourishing academic environment for them to experience research, grow, and become independent, is fulfilling. Of course, this is all fueled by ongoing discoveries—small steps that ultimately lead to better understanding of hearing and hopefully development of therapeutics.

What has been a highlight /memorable moment of your career?
During my residency training at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, I worked on a project (funded by Hearing Health Foundation’s Emerging Research Grants program) to detect fingerprints of regulatory genes in different cells in the ear. Our top candidate was a match to the binding site of a family of regulators called RFX. These were supposed to be important for the final differentiation of the sensory cells. The day we finally found the correct combination of RFX necessary for hearing was one of the most memorable moments of my career.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab?
Fitness has always played a great role in my life. I used to be a long and triple jumper in the Israeli youth and adult national teams, and then a combat fitness and self-defense instructor for the Israel Defense Forces. While I do not engage in these sports anymore, I enjoy long distance running, group road biking, and high interval training classes. Participating in sports on a regular basis is vitalizing, refreshing, and often times the best ideas come up during a run.

How does your research complement the HRP’s work?
Several years ago I realized that big data from what are called “-omics” experiments—which look at all of the genes (or proteins) that are expressed (or turned on) in a cell or tissue—are becoming more prevalent. The HRP uses a variety of -omics to compare sensory cell regeneration in ears of chick, fish (which do regenerate the sensory cells) and mice (which, like humans, do not). However, the files are so big and complex that while biologists are generating them they need computational scientists to access and interpret them.

On a run, I had an idea of how to turn big data into self-colorizing “cartoons,” where values of gene expression are represented as variations in color intensity—making it much easier to conceptualize than massive spreadsheet tables or even graphs. The tool is called the gEAR—gene Expression Analysis Resource. With funding from HHF donors, the HRP supports the gEAR, and the gEAR supports HRP scientists—while also using them as a focus group. This is a perfect relationship, allowing the gEAR to progress much faster than expected.

What has been a highlight from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
The HRP consists of a tremendous group of researchers that are all focused on curing hearing loss. Being able to interact with this diverse group of researchers, collaborate with them, and exchange ideas on a regular basis has been a true highlight. I learn something new every time we meet and hope that the tools we develop are beneficial for the groups.

What do you see is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
The HRP needs more funds and donations. These are the most important building brick right now, that is necessary to keep the experiments and collaborations going. The HRP has many more focused research proposals than funds to perform the research. The donations are what make research happen.

Current Institution: Imperial College, London
Education: University of Edinburgh, B.Sc.; Imperial College, London, Ph.D.; University of California, San Francisco, Postdoctoral Fellow

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My research is focused on deriving a genetic “wiring diagram” of the inner ear; by understanding the interactions between genes and gene networks in the inner ear, we will be able to design therapies for multiple ear disorders. My lab applies cutting-edge genomic technologies to derive and interpret large datasets so we can compare hearing loss in multiple animal models. Essentially, my lab and I are looking for the most important genetic switches with the goal of figuring out how they all fit into a genetic “circuit board” to define a particular cell type. These key switches can then be targeted to implement potential therapies.

Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
The majority of my family, going back several generations, have been either scientists or engineers. I have always loved taking apart and reconstructing complex machinery, trying to understand how it works. So it was a natural fit for me from the start to be either an engineer or a molecular biologist. I chose the latter.

Why hearing research?
Unlike many of my colleagues, I came to hearing research quite late. The majority of my training and research accomplishments are in the human genome project and human genetics. I gravitated to hearing research because I wanted to apply the power of genomic technologies to an organ system that was clinically important, complex in structure, and challengingly small. I wanted to make a difference in a field that needed these approaches.

Hearing research has not disappointed me in any of those aspects. I initially approached this transition by discussing my ideas with Jeff Corwin, Ph.D. when I moved to Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U.). He very kindly directed me to a former postdoc of his, now a fellow HRP consortium member, Mark Warchol, Ph.D. He had just moved to a faculty position at Wash U., which initiated a highly productive collaboration between Mark’s lab and mine nearly two decades long.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Deriving brand new data and discussion with my colleagues has been the most exciting and pleasurable part of my work. I love the novel questions new data raise and the insights that scientists from diverse backgrounds can bring to their interpretation. Most of what we are doing has never been pursued before, so there’s rarely a dull moment.

Tell us about something you that enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or
presenting your research.

I have three major passions outside the lab. I love to cook, especially South and East Asian food. This can lead to some competitions at home, since my wife and children are all very accomplished cooks. I am a fairly good fly fisherman, having learned from a young age while growing up in the borders of Scotland. Finally, I love to fly. I have a private pilot’s license and try to make time for some flying. I find piloting very restorative since it requires a focus and attention to detail that really clears one’s thinking.

What has been a highlight/memorable moment of your career?
My major highlights to date have come from my contributions to genomics and human genetics where I developed technologies that helped a large number of people reach their goals. It is hugely rewarding to realize that all of that effort in the lab had a significant impact on many colleagues’ work.

What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
The HRP’s biannual face-to-face meetings are very valuable for thinking strategically and with a broadened vision. They help in prioritizing, in building new collaborations, and in critically evaluating progress. My colleagues in the HRP consortium are among the most insightful in the field and it’s always stimulating to hear their views.

What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
I am a big believer in using multiple model organisms to study the genomics and epigenetics of hearing loss. Comparative genomics is a very powerful tool for identifying high-priority candidate genes/small molecules for testing and I hope we shall see a continued focus on this. In the next few years I hope that the HRP will move more fully to high-throughput functional testing and screening for new therapeutic interventions in hearing and balance disorders.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
I am very grateful for the support provided to me and fellow HRP consortium members thus far from HHF and its donors; it has resulted in many notable and important discoveries as well as opportunities to collaborate to push the needle further, faster. So, increased funding is the simple answer—with continued support from HHF and its generous donors, the HRP will be able to explore interesting new targets or strategies with strong potential rewards.

Current Institution: Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, Missouri
Education: Ph.D. from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany; Postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Child Health and Human Development

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My lab seeks to identify how cells communicate and induce hair cell regeneration in zebrafish, which regenerate their hair cells (and restore hearing) throughout life. Specifically, we are aiming to determine which genes are turned on in neighboring support cells after hair cell death, as these are the genes that instruct support cells to divide and replace hair cells. We are also investigating whether all support cells possess the ability to make new hair cells or if this ability is restricted to a unique subpopulation of cells.

Identifying the genes that trigger regeneration in neighboring cells is crucial, as activation of these genes might be able to trigger regeneration in mammals. Once we have identified where this signaling cascade is blocked, we can design therapies to circumvent this block and trigger regeneration.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
Ever since I was little, I have been intrigued by how beautiful and complex nature is. In high school I began to realize that our scientific knowledge is actually rather limited. I found that intriguing as there is still so much to learn and one will always make new discoveries.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
I find it thrilling to observe and study cellular behaviors in live embryos. Very often we start making  discoveries by just looking at how cells behave under a microscope. Seeing developing embryos or regenerating sensory organs is a very aesthetic experience. Even under a simple light microscope embryos and larvae are beautiful. Our work is a detective story that consists of many puzzle pieces and is therefore never boring!

What are memorable moments from your career?
Luckily, I have had a number of them. Many include times when, after performing experiments for a long time, a whole set of different results proves to be consistent and allows one to understand a biological process. I also love the moments when students or postdoctoral fellows come into my office and ask, “Tatjana, do you want to see something really interesting?” It can mean they observed something unexpected, leading to a back and forth of possible explanations and how to best test them.

Why hearing research?
What fascinates me is that only mammals seem to have lost the ability to regenerate hair
cells. In fact, as discovered by my HRP colleagues Neil Segil, Ph.D., and Andy Groves, Ph.D., very
young mouse embryos possess a limited ability to regenerate hair cells—arguing that the “machinery”
to replace hair cells is present in mammals, but deactivates as the animals age.

The development of sensory organs, such as the ear, is an extremely complex process. All hair cells must also be precisely arranged in bundles and rows to be able to capture sound and transmit it to the brain. We want to identify how these cells communicate and interact to achieve this precision—and ability to regenerate.

What have you gained from the HRP consortium thus far?
I have already tremendously benefited from the collaborative model of the consortium, as I have learned a lot about hair cell development and regeneration in other species, such as the chicken and the mouse. The collective knowledge has provided me invaluable feedback that has led me to design better experiments and improved interpretations of results in the context of what is known from other species. Also, being able to gain almost immediate access to other HRP scientists’ data allows us to perform follow-up experiments quickly, rather than having to wait one or two years before the data is published.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
The success of the HRP is intimately linked with the availability of funds. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is too low to fund all the studies that deserve funding, so U.S. science depends heavily on private donors and organizations such as Hearing Health Foundation. In addition, competing for NIH funding restricts one researcher’s ability to share unpublished data, another roadblock the HRP consortium has overcome.

HHF and its generous donors have made the HRP consortium and the funding for very promising projects possible; however, there’s a lot more work to be done. Other consortium members and I have already identified a significant number of genes required for hair cell regeneration in chickens and fish. With future funding we will be in a strong position to identify which gene or combinations of genes are able to trigger hair cell regeneration in mammals. Your support can make that possible.

Current Institution: University of Washington
Education: Cornell University, B.Sc.; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D.; University of Oregon, Postdoctoral training

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My lab is interested in understanding why hair cells in the inner ear (cochlea) die in response to damage, and how these damaged hair cells can be replaced through regeneration. We study these questions using the zebrafish as a model system: Zebrafish hair cells are located on the surface of their body, in the lateral line system, and are used to detect water flow. These lateral line hair cells are very similar to those of the mammalian inner ear but for scientists, they have the added advantage of easy access for visualization and manipulation. They also respond to damaging agents that affect humans, including therapeutic (ototoxic) drugs that have the unwanted side effect of killing hair cells and causing irreversible hearing loss. In addition the lateral line system undergoes robust regeneration after damage, and thus provides an interesting opportunity to compare that process with what fails to occur in mammals.

Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
I was always fascinated by puzzles and problem solving, the discovery of new ideas, and figuring out how things work. As a small child I wanted to be an archaeologist, uncovering clues to the past. Perhaps I was intrigued by the idea of digging up treasure, but the process of discovery appealed to me, especially the potential to find new knowledge about the past. As a scientist I am still excited about the potential to discover the unknown.

Why hearing research?
My Ph.D. and postdoc training was in molecular genetics and nervous system development. It was my colleague, retired Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) consortium member Edwin Rubel, Ph.D., who convinced me to look at hearing and hair cells. Together, we recognized that the strengths of the zebrafish system could be applied to studying hair cell function and dysfunction. That was 15 years ago and we’ve been collaborating ever since.

Before entering the field of hearing research I did not recognize how pervasive hearing loss is in this country and around the world. Understanding the causes of hearing loss and discovering potential therapies to alleviate its repercussions are incredibly challenging. Along with every member of the HRP consortium, I hope that bringing new approaches to the table will help contribute to mitigating these challenges.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
The most exciting parts of our research are reflective of the growing ability to apply new technologies to understanding hair cell regeneration. Gene editing capabilities allow us to test the function of genes in a previously unprecedented way, while advances in microscopy allow us to follow cells in living animals as hair cell regeneration occurs. The ability to apply these new methods to the problem of hair cell regeneration is tremendously exciting.

Describe a typical day.
I spend most of my day communicating about scientific ideas and research: meeting with members of my lab that perform the experiments, listening to new ideas to advance our research plan, talking with collaborators, reading and writing. I commute by bike—it gives me a chance to get a little exercise and time to think. Some of my best ideas have come on a bike ride!

Tell us about something that you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or presenting your research.
I’m a bit of a soccer fan, having been both a coach and relatively untalented player. Two knee injuries are keeping me off the field, but I’ve recently taken a course to become a referee. I currently support our local soccer club, the Seattle Sounders, and Liverpool England (where my mother was born).

How has the collaborative effort helped or furthered your research?
Collaboration is the key to innovation. Although there is a romantic picture of a scientist slaving away in isolation, toiling toward “eureka” moments, science works best with communication and sharing ideas. Working with the HRP consortium has allowed participation in a close network of scientists with a common goal.

The expertise of the consortium has been inspiring. Real progress can come at the interfaces of different perspectives; the whole is more than the sum of the individual parts.

What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
I hope in the next year we will have a better understanding of the gene regulatory network that underlies hair cell regeneration in species that can do so. In two years we may know which pieces are missing in mammals. In five years I hope we will be able to introduce these missing pieces back into mammals and induce new hair cell regulation.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Promoting hair cell regeneration is an incredible challenge and I appreciate the dedication of my colleagues in addressing this problem. The support of HHF has been amazing, but more is needed. Increased funding would allow us to apply more of our time and effort towards the goal of restoring hearing.

Current Institution: The University of Michigan
Education: Tel Aviv University B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D.; The University of Michigan, Postdoctoral training

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My lab focuses on developing mechanisms to protect, repair, and regenerate cells in the inner ear. We use mammalian models for genetic deafness and for environmentally caused hearing loss such as overstimulation or ototoxicity (medications that are toxic to the ear).

Our main mode of intervention is gene therapy, a method that utilizes modified viruses to shuttle therapeutic genes into cells. We are also studying the biology of inner ears that receive cochlear implants and developing methods for enhancing the health of the neurons in these ears, with the goal of improving the quality of sound perception by the implant user.

Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
I was trained as an audiologist, and although I enjoyed the clinical aspects of audiology, I found research even more fascinating and realized that scientific curiosity was leading me toward the research path. The unique and highly organized structure of sensory cells in the cochlea is among the features of the auditory system that truly captured my enthusiasm and piqued my interest, leading me to switch my focus and enroll in graduate studies that were more biology oriented. My choice to work in the field of protection and regeneration was influenced in part by my experience in the military, which involved many years in artillery and frequent exposure to loud explosions.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Data analysis is by far the most exciting part of my research. I enjoy observing the tissues under the microscope and analyzing results of every experiment; it is the highlight at the end of every experiment, sometimes yielding unexpected results.

Tell us something you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or presenting your research.
I enjoy my family first and foremost, and I read fiction in both English and Hebrew. Among books that left a strong impression in recent years are The Glass Castle, Defending Jacob, The Signature of All Things, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, and several historical fiction novels such as The Shadow of the Wind and Pope Joan. I listen to music, especially well recorded albums of jazz, pop, and classical music (opera, orchestral, chamber) and enjoy vocalists, such as Esperanza Spalding, Diana Krall, Jazzmeia Horn, Sarah McLachlan and Cecile McLorin Salvant.

What has been a highlight or memorable moment of your career?
I will always remember in the early 1990’s when we first saw supporting cells dividing in the chick hearing organ, implicating those cells as a source for new hair cells in noise- traumatized ears. In 1991 we also observed supporting cells that began to exhibit hair cell features without having had a chance to divide, suggesting they can convert their identity. Influenced by these two findings, we started focusing our work on supporting cells and ways to induce their conversion to new hair cells in the mammal. About 10 years later, we started seeing new hair cells in the living, mature mammalian inner ear, in response to Atoh1 gene therapy. This was a very rewarding outcome after spending decades
developing the approach and technology to accomplish regeneration, not knowing whether it would ever work.

What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium thus far?
The approach of sharing ideas and data is a very positive part of the HRP culture. Collaboration is important because it allows for open discussion and direct feedback, enhancing the likelihood of success. The atmosphere of the HRP consortium facilitates this rare opportunity for scientists to openly discuss novel approaches and technology.

How has the collaborative effort helped/furthered your research?
My area of expertise is in manipulating the inner ear and assessing the outcomes. Support from the HRP has allowed me to improve and advance our surgical approach for injecting reagents into the tiny inner ear of the mouse. The HRP is now supporting extensive data analysis that could lead to identification of pathways and specific molecules that will enhance hearing restoration. Once candidate molecules are formulated, my expertise in inner ear surgeries and histological analysis will become very useful.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
With the continued financial support of HHF’s supporters, the HRP will be able to further expand experimental work on hearing restoration, to develop therapies for treating a variety of causes of hearing loss, such as those caused by environmental reasons (noise or side effect of medications). The HRP will also be able to expand its focus to include finding cures for genetic deafness.

Which scientist or mentor do you find the most inspirational?
My Ph.D. mentor Benny Geiger, Ph.D., was very inspirational with his deep knowledge of cell biology, admirable wisdom, and endless patience. Josef Miller, Ph.D. (who, sadly, passed away in early 2017), also left a strong impression on me, for his intellectual approach to life and science. With both Joe and Benny, in addition to discussion of data and experimental plans, I was able to enjoy and benefit from shared interests in music, art and books.

Current Institution: University of Southern California
Education: Hampshire College, B.A.; Columbia University, Ph.D.; Rockefeller University, Postdoctoral training

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
A common cause of deafness is the death of the inner ear’s sensory hair cells. My lab and I research why these cells are not normally regenerated in humans, even though they are rapidly replaced in other animals such as birds and fish.

Our current hypothesis is that the genes needed to regenerate hair cells become restricted or “locked up” during the development of the embryo. My lab is investigating the nature of this “lockup” phenomena, with the goal of stimulating regeneration, and thus hearing, in humans. Powerful new techniques for manipulating the state of a cell’s DNA have become available over the past several years, technology we are using to test our theories.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
At Hampshire College in the 1970s the graduation requirement was to spend your final year writing a thesis on a topic of your choice. I hadn’t studied much biology until then but I was interested in questions about life on earth, and this led me to a wonderful developmental biology lab at Smith College, our sister school. With the help of my advisor, I designed a project on regeneration of the lens in the eye of the red-bellied newt, a classic regeneration model that I was able to catch in the local ponds of western Massachusetts. The project was successful, the outcome raised lots of new questions, and my professor encouraged me to write it up and publish it. I think that initial success, and the encouragement I received, was a key factor in my eventual decision to become a scientist.

Why hearing research?
I had completed my Ph.D. in biochemical embryology and gene regulation and decided to do postdoctoral training in a new field, namely cell cycle research and transcriptional control. I was interested in how genes manage to maintain their pattern of expression through repeated cell divisions (mitosis), a phenomenon now known as “mitotic bookmarking.” When I began looking for a faculty position, I serendipitously learned that a new department of Cell Biology was opening at the House Ear Institute in L.A. and that David Lim, Ph.D. (a member for HHF’s Council of Scientific Trustees), was looking for people to join. Jeff Corwin, Ph.D., introduced me to David, and eventually I was persuaded that the inner ear was a great model system for many of the developmental biology questions that interested me.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
In addition to making predictions and designing experiments to test them, the most exciting part is when experiments don’t work the way you think they will, and something unexpected emerges. These days I enjoy the same thing more vicariously. I like hearing new ideas that come from discussions with creative people in my lab—and then pestering them mercilessly until I hear the outcome of the experiments that follow.

Tell us something you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or presenting your research.
I enjoy hiking in the mountains to the north of L.A., where I live. The mountains are large, rugged, and covered with sage and rosemary. They are also a little dry and dusty, but in the spring—and at least when it rains, as it has this winter—there are great wildflowers. Years ago, fellow HRP member Andy Groves, Ph.D., and I went hiking together every Sunday morning. That was really the genesis of our collaboration that continues today.

What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
The HRP provides an ongoing, supportive forum for me to discuss progress and ideas about how to solve the problems of hair cell regeneration with a group of people in the field whom I admire. These discussions and the critical feedback about our work help both to direct the research and overcome roadblocks.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next year, two years, five years?
I think the cross-species comparative approach that is embodied by the HRP strategic plan will prove to be even more useful in the near future. My hope is that in the next few years this will yield a description of the gene regulatory networks that are important in hair cell regeneration. From there I hope we can develop drugs or therapies that stimulate hair cell regeneration.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
In a phrase: continued funding. The HRP got the ball rolling by identifying and initially funding projects deemed essential for future progress toward new treatments for hearing loss. However, the experiments needed to reach this goal are labor-intensive and rely on the most sophisticated modern technologies, and so are necessarily expensive. The HRP has provided the impetus vital for this work, and its continued support is crucial to the future of this effort.

Current Institution: University of Washington School of Medicine
Education: Skidmore College, B.A. in Biology and Studio Art Boston University School of Medicine, Ph.D. in Anatomy and Neurobiology

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
The major goal of our research is to develop a biological therapy for hearing and balance deficits through hair cell regeneration, using two approaches: First, we study chickens, which are able to replace all of the hair cells in the inner ear after damage and regain hearing and balance functions. Then, we study adult mice, which can replace about one in five hair cells in their balance organs. Using these approaches, we are identifying signals that direct the formation of new hair cells in mature birds and rodents. Some signals may ultimately be effective in promoting hair cell regeneration and restoring hearing in humans.

If you had not become a researcher what would you have done?
At one point, I wanted to be a dentist, like my father. I worked with him in high school, and I loved spending time with patients and watching him work. I also love architecture—a great blend of art and science. In some ways what I am doing blends both interests: helping people and learning how the architecture of the human body is regenerated after damage.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
In college, I was a studio art major, drawn to the beauty of nature and the human form. Along the way, I was encouraged to explore biology because it is aesthetically appealing and has many secrets to unlock. After college, I spent two years doing neuroscience research at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and this experience pushed me to become a scientist.

Why hearing research? What is the most exciting part of your research?
A few things drew me to the inner ear. One was the intricacy and beauty of hair cells, the sensory receptor cells used for hearing and balance. Second, I met my graduate studies mentor, Douglas Cotanche, Ph.D., at Boston University School of Medicine. At that time and along with a few other scientists, Doug had recently discovered hair cell regeneration in birds. It wasn’t until I wrote my first application for funding that I began to appreciate how many people are affected by hearing and balance disabilities. A lack of media attention has meant a general unawareness about these disorders. As for the most exciting—it’s hard to choose! It’s thrilling when, after a long period of trying
to solve a technical or conceptual problem, the solution emerges and it is unexpected! I also
love to watch young scientists fall in love with research and begin to form their own ideas
and make discoveries.

What has been a highlight of your career?
I was honored to receive the Burt Evans Young Investigator Award from the National Organization for Hearing Research when I became an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. This award boosted my confidence, and I have since pushed myself even harder to be an effective researcher.

How has the collaborative effort helped your research?
Working with the HRP has “upped my game,” as I have learned so much from my colleagues about applying new techniques to my research, as well as mentoring and presenting work publicly. By collaborating with HRP investigators who have expertise different from mine—such as Neil Segil, Ph.D., and Mike Lovett, Ph.D.—my lab has more effectively utilized genomics to identify and
study signaling pathways that promote hair cell regeneration, allowing us to refine experiments and accelerate our pace toward discoveries.

What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next few years?
I am excited to see how the public release of HRP’s Phase I data will spur investigators around the world to take their research on hair cell regeneration in new directions. I anticipate HRP members will identify one or more drugs that can promote hair cell regeneration in mice, an important step toward stimulating regeneration in humans.

What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Scientists in the consortium must remain committed to working extremely hard toward figuring out mammalian hair cell regeneration, and they must receive continuous funding for these efforts. Research is not effective when it happens in fits and starts. It is going to take several years of hard work to find a safe and effective way to promote the lasting recovery of hearing in humans. I am so grateful to HHF and its donors for their continued generosity and support of my and the HRP’s research efforts. With additional funding at the same—and hopefully increased—levels, our research efforts can be accelerated significantly and ultimately lead us faster to better treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.

Current Institution: Washington University in St. Louis
Education: B.S. degree from the University of Washington; Ph.D. from Northwestern University; postdoctoral work at the University of Virginia

  Credit: Jane G Photography

Credit: Jane G Photography

What is your area of focus?
My lab currently has two research foci. First, we’re trying to understand the process of regeneration in the avian ear. Like humans, birds are warm-blooded vertebrates, and their inner ears function in similar ways. However, the avian ear also has an amazing ability to regenerate after injury. Understanding the molecular signals and pathways that underlie this reparative process will suggest ways for inducing similar forms of regeneration in humans.

In a related line of work, we are looking into the possible role of innate immune cells (macrophages) in promoting sensory regeneration. Immune cells enhance repair and regeneration in other tissues of the body, and injury to the inner ear leads to activation and recruitment of these cells. Still, it is not clear whether these cells can help stimulate regeneration in the cochlea. Our current data suggest that immune cells are important for the survival of auditory neurons after cochlear injury. Since these neurons convey information on sound from the ear to the brain, they are critical to the performance of cochlear implants.

Why did you decide to get into scientific research? Why hearing research?
I have always been drawn to science and never really considered doing anything else. Understanding and explaining things—especially complex things like the inner ear and the nervous system—is really satisfying. As far as my interest in hearing research, it occurred by accident. I became interested in neurobiology while I was an undergraduate. I was fortunate to spend a couple of years working as a research technician at Oregon Health & Science University, where I learned a number of methods for recording electrical signals from the auditory system. That era, the early 1980s, was a very exciting time in hearing research. New phenomena, like otoacoustic emissions and active amplification in the cochlea, were first being described and debated. I quickly became fascinated with the operation of the cochlea and have been doing research on the inner ear ever since.

What is the most exciting part of your research?
Any new data are exciting, particularly when they run counter to my own expectations! I am also interested in the comparative biology of hearing. All animals that hear confront a common problem: how to detect a wide range of sound intensities and also achieve fine discrimination of both pitch and timing. The vertebrate ear has evolved a number of different ways to achieve this goal. The ancestors of birds and mammals diverged about 300 million years ago, and their ears possess some interesting and unique specializations.

In collaboration with fellow HRP researcher Michael Lovett, Ph.D., we have compiled extensive genomic data on the avian cochlea and vestibular organs. These studiesshould provide insights on regeneration, but I am also hopeful that they will help us to better understand the processes of divergence and convergence during the evolution of the avian and mammalian ear.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the lab?
Outside the lab, I still do a lot of science-y stuff. I enjoy astronomy, and also visiting zoos and watching nonhuman primates. I like museums of art and natural history, and I always look forward to the several weeks each summer I spend with my family in rural Maine.

How has the collaborative effort helped your research?
Much of my work with the HRP has focused on characterizing gene expression in the regenerating chick cochlea and utricle. By identifying all of the genes that are involved, we hope to construct a roadmap that will guide similar regenerative efforts in humans. This has been a true collaborative effort, involving scientists at Imperial College London as well as Stanford University and the University of Washington. Hearing Health Foundation has funded this work and has been valuable in facilitating this collaboration.

What has been something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
In addition to this project collaboration, I also find the semiannual HRP meetings to be very beneficial. At least twice a year, we all meet in person to discuss our latest findings and to formulate plans for future research. Having a large group of experts all in the same room and focused on a common problem is a great way to make progress.

What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
The long-term goal of the HRP is to develop methods for repairing the inner ear and restoring hearing. We can approach this in a couple of ways. First, we can experiment with the injured mammalian ear, using methods like gene therapy or treatment with novel drug compounds to attempt to induce regeneration. Second, we can find out exactly how regeneration occurs in animals whose ears are able to regenerate spontaneously (fish and birds). Progress is most likely if we pursue both approaches simultaneously. I am particularly hopeful that HHF–supported research will allow us to identify the specific genes and signaling pathways that lead to sensory regeneration in the avian ear.
While there is no doubt that HHF and its generous donors have been very supportive of the HRP consortium, increased funding will lead to greater research and accelerated discovery toward a cure. Your support can help us achieve our goal, faster.