Research is targeting a cure for permanent hearing loss

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hearing loss affects an estimated 50 million Americans. Some hearing loss is temporary, and may be caused by short exposures to loud noises, but for many people, it is permanent. Hearing Health Foundation, the largest private funder of hearing research, has organized a Consortium of researchers through the Hearing Research Project, with a goal of accelerating the timeline for a genuine cure for most types of acquired hearing loss. The cure focuses on the specialized cells that make hearing possible.

Hair cells located in the inner ear turn sounds into electrical signals that transmit the sound information to the brain. In humans, exposure to loud noises, age and even some medications can damage or even kill these hair cells, thus causing permanent hearing loss. But birds and fish are able to spontaneously regrow their damaged hair cells, leading scientists to discover how this ability can be replicated in humans.

As a college student, Katharine Simpson began to notice she was missing sounds – but ignored the symptoms until she drove through a toll road pass and didn’t hear the transponder beep. Her younger brother had already experienced hearing loss in his teens, and Simpson discovered her hearing patterns matched the loss her brother had experienced years before.

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While coming to terms with her hearing loss, Simpson started seeking out researchers and scientists, reading any information on new developments that she could find, giving her hope for a cure.

“Part of the reason I wanted – or, needed, rather – to embrace my hearing loss is my little brother,” Simpson says. “I watched how hard it was for him to grow up with hearing loss, and he still struggles with it to this day.”

Simpson’s friends helped her manage her hearing loss in social situations, and began choosing to eat at quieter restaurants and turning on the closed captioning for shows on television. But movie theaters, noisy bars and nightclubs and even whispered conversations are difficult for Simpson to hear. The hope for a cure for both herself and her brother helps her stay strong.

The Hearing Research Project is looking to discover what prevents regeneration of hair cells in human ears, and what can be done to promote regeneration.

“Hearing Health Foundation is ideally positioned to lead this world-class consortium and deliver on the goal of a cure,” says Andrea Boidman, executive director of the foundation. “For too many years, biomedical research has been conducted in relative isolation, one researcher or one institution working alone to tackle a major health issue. So we developed the consortium model to accelerate the path to the cure by eliminating repetitive work and fostering cooperation among scientists, rather than competition.”

The Consortium is comprised of 14 talented and creative researchers who are already established in the area of cell regeneration in the ear. These researchers, who have been working individually on significant contributions to the field of cell regeneration, have pledged, through the HRP, to work collaboratively with each other. They will not only share information but also work together on the HRP-funded projects.

Expediting the timeline to a cure for permanent hearing loss is the goal for the Hearing Research Project. The promise of a real, biologic cure is focused on the inner ear hair cells that make hearing possible. To learn more, visit