'The Richness of Human Experience'

Creighton's Translational Hearing Center aims to prevent drug-induced hearing loss


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    Credit: Creighton University

    Researchers in Creighton University's Translational Hearing Center, from left, Peter Steyger, PhD, and Jian Zuo, PhD, are seeking ways to prevent hearing loss and restore lost hearing.

Newswise — When he was 14 months old, Peter Steyger, PhD, contracted bacterial meningitis.

Physicians in his native Manchester, United Kingdom, managed to save his life through a course of aminoglycoside antibiotics, but a side-effect of those drugs robbed him of his hearing.

Some 50 years later, Steyger, with a doctorate in neuroscience and hundreds of publications on ototoxicity and cochlear anatomy, has dedicated his life and career to preventing a similar fate for other children. In May, Steyger will officially join Creighton University as director of the School of Medicine’s Translational Hearing Center in a move that he says is “a dream scenario that will help me fulfill my life’s goals.”

“The vision here at Creighton to do the pre-clinical, otoprotective work and the collaborative environment here is absolutely phenomenal and central to translational medicine,” said Steyger, who will come to Creighton officially at the end of May after more than two decades at the Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon Hearing Research Center.

“I’ve worked with some wonderful, brilliant researchers on very difficult problems, yet we were all in our own zone. What Creighton has done across disciplines and in partnering with other institutions gives us the opportunity to learn and discover alongside one another and translate those discoveries to prevent hearing loss or restore hearing to a lot of people.”

The Center will also collaborate with Boys Town National Research Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The expansive effort, Steyger said, makes it all the more likely that researchers will make significant breakthroughs.

“We can move with more velocity,” Steyger said. “Creighton has a long history in auditory research, as does Boys Town. The kinds of credentials these researchers have and their willingness to work collaboratively was a major reason I came to Creighton.”

Steyger will arrive at Creighton with a major National Institutes of Health grant in tow and another, $3.5-million grant on the way from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). The grants are dedicated to preventing, through clinical or pharmaceutical interventions, the kind of hearing loss Steyger experienced. The center will also examine the potential to restore hearing via repairing or replacing damaged hearing cells.

Ten Creighton faculty from the School of Medicine, the School of Dentistry and the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, with another three new faculty researchers to be hired, will comprise the Translational Hearing Center. Graduate students and undergraduates will also play crucial roles in the THC laboratories.

Chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Jian Zuo, PhD, will head up drug design for the center.

“There is a lot of synergy on this, a lot of interprofessional collaboration that is making this possible,” said Zuo, who was hired last April and is working on a project to target at what point and in what populations antibiotics or chemotherapy drugs for cancer affect hearing. “There are some very promising pathways that Dr. Steyger has identified, and some compounds that we’ve identified. The great thing is that our vision, our goals, are identical in this: to develop the first drug that could prevent this kind of hearing loss in children.”

Steyger notes the incidence of hearing loss for children in the U.S. under the age of 2 is about 1 in 200, typically caused by trauma, infection or antibiotic drugs. By 18, about 1 in 20 children experience hearing loss. From there, the frequency increases with age-related hearing loss added into the mix.

Since he was 2, Steyger has been outfitted with the latest in technological advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants that, ironically, gives him an advantage as he gets older and hears better.

“Many in my age-bracket are now experiencing age-related hearing loss,” he said. “I’m going the other way. The technology is really amazing in rehabilitating hearing loss. But what would be even better is if we could prevent hearing loss in the first place and give everyone that natural ability to hear.”

In any given year, some 100,000 people in the U.S. are treated with aminoglycosides, the antibiotics that caused Steyger’s hearing loss, and up to another 500,000 are treated with chemotherapy drugs that cause hearing loss. Developing an effective compound to forestall that side-effect is the Center’s primary aim.  The THC will also be looking at the potential to regrow the cochlear hair cells that, when depleted, lead to deafness. These sensory cells, which do not regenerate in humans, are readily renewed in fish, amphibians and birds. Sonia Rocha-Sanchez, PhD, assistant dean for research in the School of Dentistry, has begun work on such a project and will be one of the core faculty at the THC.

On May 10, the Department of Biomedical Sciences will host the inaugural Bellucci Symposium on Hearing Research, sponsored by the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation and named for School of Medicine alumnus Richard J. Bellucci, MD’41, an innovator in ear surgery techniques to treat conductive hearing loss.

The Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation has also donated $300,000 to support the THC further its research.

After several visits to Creighton, Steyger is now eager to begin the work that, for him, was set into motion when he was a youngster.

“It gets me up out of bed in the morning,” he said. “I’m very passionate about this, and it keeps me motivated when setbacks occur. It’s a way to pay forward the support I have received in the past. Hearing is vital to communication. Perceiving sound is integral to music, listening to stories, theater. That all contributes to the richness of human experience.”

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