We live in a world that likes simple, straightforward answers.
“Who won the [insert any sport here] game?”
–“This team won, and the other team lost.”
But the more complex the question, the harder this type of zero-sum response can be.
And when it comes to the question of “When will there be a cure for hearing loss?,” at this point, there’s no easy answer—which doesn’t really square away with our desire for clickbait-worthy headlines (“Scientists CURE DEAFNESS!”) and assertions that are 140 characters or less, including hashtags (“Did you go to too many rock concerts? Now hear this! #hearinglosscure”).
To understand why a cure for hearing loss has been elusive so far, it helps to understand the scientific process. “Science moves incrementally at some level, but the reality is, leaps happen randomly,” says Dr. Tony Ricci, one of the principal investigators (P.I.’s) at the Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss (SICHL) and professor in the School of Medicine and professor, by courtesy, of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University. At SICHL, researchers are looking at multiple approaches to cure different forms of hearing loss, including through regeneration, stem cell therapy, and gene therapy. “So some of these have timelines of a year or two, and some of these have timelines of 10 years,” says Dr. Ricci. “And some of them we try not think about what the timeline is, because you don’t know.”
This can be hard for journalists to write up, since “We don’t know when” doesn’t make a great headline – even if it is the truth.
Science also requires a willingness to experiment, and qualified people to conduct these experiments. Ricci likens the progress of a hearing loss cure to the search for an effective treatment for HIV and AIDS over the past few decades. There wasn’t one researcher with a lot of money who found the answer. Rather, “It was now you had 1,000 people all trying to answer the question,” Ricci explains. “So there were 1,000 shots and there were a couple of hits, and so it moved forward.”
But the caveat is that there aren’t nearly as many people working in the field of hearing research as there were on HIV, partly because hearing loss isn’t fatal. But it’s also because the ear – specifically the cochlea, which, along with the brain, is responsible for hearing – is a difficult body part for researchers to access. “Hearing doesn’t move forward at the same rate as say vision research, because there’s 10 percent of the people doing it,” Ricci says. “You can count on my hands the number of labs that do the experiments that I do in the world, not in the United States.”
Science is also dependent on, well, scientists. Unlike being a brief sensation on Tik Tok, becoming a scientist in the hearing field isn’t something just anyone can do. Regarding himself and his fellow P.I.’s, Ricci says, “To be successful in science, you need really broad training, broader training that what any of us had way back when we were at school. I think this is specifically true in the hearing field.” This also means finding and recruiting the next generation of scientists, a process in itself.
I had thought that a cure for hearing loss was simply about money – and while things are always at least a little bit about money, it goes far beyond that. While we wait for the leap to a cure, the scientific process is actively happening – perhaps without fanfare, but no less important to the overall goal.
You can help accelerate the progress of SICHL by becoming a donor. For information, email Dr. Cliff Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.