UC second year biochemistry student Lara Sweetapple says a biological cure would enable the hearing impaired to freely communicate, eliminate social isolation and embarrassment, improve job opportunities and overall quality of life.
“Hearing loss is the most common sensory impairment in the world. About one in 10 New Zealanders suffer from hearing impairment. The majority of hearing loss is caused by damage to the hair cell components of the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells do not regrow and repair.
“Current treatment involves the use of electronic gadgets: hearing aids and cochlear implants. Both of these technologies have serious disadvantages and limitations. They do not restore normal hearing. What if we could create a permanent biological cure for hearing loss?
“Experiments have shown that some birds and fish are actually able to regain hearing within weeks after they encounter damage to their inner ears. If birds and fish can do this, why can’t we?
“I am interested in researching birds and fish to find a cure for this kind of hearing damage. Like birds and fish, humans contain all the genetic information needed to regrow the hair cells. We simply cannot use it, because these genes are turned off. Birds and fish may hold a biological cure for hearing loss.
“Rather than inserting electronic gadgets into our ears, we could potentially use the body’s own existing genes to regenerate hair cells and enable people to hear again. All of the genetic information is there within the human body – but what if we could turn these genes back on?”
Sweetapple says scientists at UC could undertake research to examine how the ear works at a molecular and genetic level to discover some of the pieces of the puzzle that explain why human hearing loss is permanent.
Molecular biologists could contribute, working alongside the UC’s audiology researchers, to provide a better treatment for those with hearing loss.
The 12 finalists for the Sir Paul Callaghan Awards will give their addresses in Wellington on 12 July.
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