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).
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.