Inducing Hair Cell Regeneration in Adult Mice

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Alan Cheng, MD of Stanford University, California, the 2012-2013 CORE/Wiley H. Harrison, MD Memorial Grant recipient, will look at how supporting cells become hair cells.

Dr. Cheng, assistant professor of otolaryngology and a pediatric otologist, will investigate cells in the mouse inner ear with the potential to become hair cells. Hair cells are special sensory cells that translate sound vibrations into neural impulses that are interpreted by the brain as sound. Because loss of hair cells underlies many forms of hearing loss, regenerating hair cells is a promising approach to reversing hearing loss.

Hair cells in a healthy ear exist within a matrix of other cell types that play roles in supporting the hair cells. Dr. Cheng and colleagues have found that to a limited extent in mouse models, some of these supporting cells can give rise to new hair cells. The supporting cells are said to have stem cell- or progenitor cell-like properties because they are able to differentiate in a variety of cell types, including hair cells.

Dr. Cheng’s research will focus on describing the mechanisms involved in causing a supporting cell to differentiate into a hair cell.

Using mouse models, Dr. Cheng has been able to characterize specific progenitor cell types that can give rise to hair cells and has identified specific cues – both genetic and molecular – that are essential in this process. Dr. Cheng published the results of these studies in the May 22, 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For his AHRF-funded research, Dr. Cheng will further investigate how hair cells are regenerated in mice in the gravity sensing inner ear organ the utricle. He has previously described molecular events that occur during regeneration in these cells, which are similar to the events that take place during normal embryonic development and lead to the formation of hair cells. His work will further investigate whether these molecular pathways can be manipulated to enhance hair cell regeneration in both mouse inner ear tissues in the lab, and in live mice where hair cells are damaged artificially.