A deaf pupil puts a hearing aid on his ear at the Mission de L'Espoir school in Leveque, Haiti, April 11, 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS/ANDRES MARTINEZ CASARES)
The human ear is a powerful machine. The process of understanding vibrations and translating them into noise takes place within the inner ear, where sound waves come into contact with thousands of hair cells.
A Tel Aviv research team has drawn a comprehensive map of the inner ear's genes and signals, which they call the first of its kind. Their research could help produce solutions to hearing loss.
The research team, led by Professor Karen Avraham, the Vice Dean of the Sackler Faculty of Medicene at TAU, has created a map of methylation, a epigenetic signal, that shows the functioning of the inner ear.
"Epigenetic signals — among them methylation — don't allow the genes that could regenerate hair cells to be turned on," Avraham said."If we can discover how these genes are controlled — how they're turned on and off — we may be able to modify these signals to allow regeneration to happen.
Once cells within the ear die they cannot regenerate which leads to hearing loss. TAU's research might be able to change that.
"This would allow us to transform cells in the inner ear to become functional hair cells or create new ones to allow for proper hearing. We hope that our epigenetic maps of the inner ear will provide entry points into the development of therapeutics for hearing loss," Avraham said.
The epigenetic map helps scientists understand how the genetic code of the ear is read.
"Our analysis of the DNA methylation dynamics revealed a large number of new genes that are critical for the development of the inner ear and the onset of hearing itself," Avraham said.
Hebrew University Professor Howard Ceder, a leading expert on methylation, agreed that the research will provide insight into curing healing loss.
"While our genes provide the instructions for how to make the building blocks of the hearing system, understanding how these components are controlled to provide proper hearing requires additional epigenetic information. The research directed by Prof. Avraham and her colleagues provides, for the first time, insights into how this works and reveals important clues on how we may be able to prevent or correct a wide variety of hearing ailments," Ceder said.
TAU doctoral student Ofer Yizhar-Barnea, Professor R. David Hawkins and researchers from the University of Washington and the Fondazione Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy worked on the study. They published their findings in Scientific Reports.
The research was funded by the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation, the Israel Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health–NIDCD and the UK Action on Hearing Loss.
"Epigenetic modification of gene expression, possibly by reversing abnormal DNA methylation, may offer a way of awakening the very genes that block regeneration from occurring," Avraham said.
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