Hope for Restoring Hearing Loss

“The question is not if we will regenerate hair cells in humans, but when” – Peter Barr-Gillespie

Jane G. Photography
Dr. Barr-Gillespie & The HRP Team (Jane G. Photography)

That is the mission, and the hope, offered by the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP). This remarkable collaborative effort by a consortium of researchers has been pioneering groundbreaking research since 2011.  How close are they to that goal?

First, a little background.  For most of us the culprit is sensorineural hearing loss caused by lost or damaged hair cells in our inner ears.  Simply put, hair cells are the tiny clusters of sound detectors in our cochleas that are killed by exposure to loud noise, or die off as we age, never to be replaced.

“It’s fair to say most hearing loss is due to some sort of damage to the hair cells or their connections to the auditory nerve,” says Peter Barr-Gillespie, Director of the HRP, “that’s been the focus of HRP and many people in the field. It’s a tough nut to crack.”

HRP researchers scattered across North America are trying to crack that nut by studying two animals that are able to naturally regenerate lost hair cells.  Chickens and zebra fish can perform that trick but mammals like us cannot.  That riddle is the focus of their research.

(The research consortium includes Prof. Stefan Heller at Stanford whom I interviewed here and Prof. Alain Dabdoub at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto.  I interviewed him here.)

To find the answer they are also studying the cochleas of mice. It seems that mice are pretty good stand-ins for humans.

“Mice are high frequency specialists,” says Barr-Gillespie, and it’s those high frequencies that humans tend to lose. “If there is a therapy that works for a mouse it’s likely that we could take that and use it for humans.”

So what would a treatment for humans look like?

“There are a couple of possibilities, he says.  “One, some sort of gene delivery where we would identify the gene that can overcome the blocks to regeneration.”

“But what I would prefer to see is some sort of drug that you could either take by mouth or apply through the ear.  The first step we are interested in is finding the right targets and then developing the drug.  That would likely involve a pharmaceutical company because they have the resources.”

The big question is, of course, when will any therapy be available? Barr-Gillespie like many researchers in the field talks in terms of five to ten years.  But he adds that, “We could be surprised”.

After all science and serendipity often go hand in hand.  Back in 1928 a stray fleck of mold came in through an open window in Alexander Fleming’s laboratory, landed in his petri dish and killed the bacteria in it. The result was penicillin.

“From where I sit,” he concludes, “my fingers are always crossed.”

Mine too.

The Hearing Restoration Project is supported by the Hearing Health Foundation which is the largest non-profit funder of hearing research in the United States.  I urge you to visit their web site to learn more, and support their work.