Silence Is Not Golden

10/18/2011 05:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011
  • Dr. Edwin Rubel Virginia Merrill Bloedel professor of hearing sciences, University of Washington

For some, silence may be golden, but for the more than 36 million Americans who suffer some form of hearing loss, silence will never be golden.

The inability to communicate with a friend or a loved one, or to listen to a favorite piece of music or the cheers at a ball game is a profound loss for all involved. Side effects of hearing loss are devastating, often leading to depression, social isolation, loss of intimate connections with friends and family, and even ridicule.

Millions of people have watched the viral video of 29-year old Sarah Churman, as she listens to the sound of her voice for the first time with the aid of a state-of-the art hearing implant. The video moved all of us deeply who watched.

Many people assume hearing loss only happens to "old people," when in fact it affects a wide spectrum: young and old, and more men than women. One in seven American adults has significant hearing loss, and this number is expected to double by 2030.

For veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan hearing loss accounts for the first and second most frequently reported war injuries, surpassing even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Now, for the first time, we can do something about hearing loss. Incredible breakthroughs that will prevent and actually cure hearing loss are within reach. Through an initiative called the Hearing Restoration Project, launched October 3rd at the 2011 Summit: The Promise of Cell Regeneration, my colleagues and I have joined forces with teams of top researchers from other hearing research centers in the country and are working together on cell regeneration in the inner ear.

While each group may have different skills and may be focusing on different aspects of inner ear cell regeneration, we are joining forces to find ways to regrow the tiny and delicate cells in the inner ear that transmit information to the brain and allow us to hear.

New technologies and powerful new approaches are emerging. I am confident that with a sufficient work force and sufficient funds, these breakthroughs will provide the information needed to prevent and restore hearing -- without surgery or batteries -- in our lifetimes.

Twenty-five years ago, this field of research didn't even exist. It all began back in the late 1980s, when I was lucky enough to head one of the two research groups that serendipitously discovered that in birds, these cells -- the tiny hair cells in the inner ear responsible for hearing and balance -- actually regenerate and restore hearing after they are damaged by toxic drugs or over-exposure to loud noises. Our work, and that of Dr. Doug Cotanche (then at the University of Pennsylvania and now at Harvard School of Public Policy), initiated a new field of research that offered new hope for people who suffer from hearing loss and balance disorders.

Our collective research revealed many important aspects of the process birds and other animals use to mend their hearing and balance organs and confirmed that hair cells really do not regenerate in mammals. We began looking for ways to stimulate hair cell regrowth in mammals and are now faced with two major challenges: replacing damaged cells and degenerated cells (primarily hair cells), and reconnecting the cells to the nerve fibers that allow sound information to be sent to the brain.

Even today our army of researchers is much too small with fewer than a dozen laboratories working mainly or exclusively on finding ways to stimulate hair cell regeneration. Nonetheless, we are on the cusp of major breakthroughs. All we need are the resources that the Hearing Restoration Project is providing: a means of collaborating -- of sharing and prioritizing what scientists are learning to speed our progress and the recruitment of new outstanding scientists to this endeavor -- and a sustained stream of much-needed funding.

Let's not forget that the "War on Cancer" began just 40 years ago and the decades were marked with periods of no obvious success or breakthroughs even as huge resources were dedicated to it. But the sustained efforts of dedicated scientists during those quiet years yielded amazing results.

The nature of the beast is that science progresses in fits and starts depending on the number of people doing the research, the amount of money available and the level of interest and needed tools to support the field. We need to create a confluence of these essential elements today, but public support is critical. The time to beat hearing loss is now.

There are millions of people in our country waiting for the their Sarah Churman moment. Imagine the joy of someone you know who has hearing loss -- and you very likely do -- when, you tell them a cure is within reach and their wait will soon be over. We who have made it our life's work to find a cure for hearing loss are all too familiar with the numbers that tell the story of how it affects so many daily.