Funding cutting-edge researchers, the potential of hair cell regeneration, and the urgent need for a hearing loss cure: I’m excited to share exclusive excerpts from a Q&A I conducted with Timothy Higdon, the President and CEO of Hearing Health Foundation (HHF). HHF is the largest non-profit funder of scientific research in the U.S. dedicated to finding cures for hearing loss, tinnitus, and related conditions. Special thanks to Lauren McGrath, HHF’s Director of Marketing & Communications, for her assistance.
What is Hearing Health Foundation?
HHF was founded in 1958 as the Deafness Research Foundation by Collette Ramsey Baker, whose hearing was restored by surgery. In gratitude for her ability to hear, she founded the organization to develop better treatments and cures for hearing and balance conditions.
HHF has two signature research programs that work in tandem to advance hearing health. The Emerging Research Grants program, established with its founding, identifies and awards funds to innovative, cutting-edge hearing scientists who work to influence better treatments for hearing and balance disorders including tinnitus, hyperacusis, auditory processing disorders, Meniere’s disease, and Usher syndrome.
The second program, the Hearing Restoration Project, was founded in 2011 and is an international consortium of top researchers dedicated to finding cure(s) for hearing loss and tinnitus. HRP scientists work to understand how to regenerate dead or inactive inner ear hair cells in animals with the ultimate aim of replicating this process to restore hearing in humans.
Both programs are overseen by senior scientific advisory bodies comprised of hearing and balance experts based at leading research universities and academic medical centers nationwide. They are accountable to HHF’s Board of Directors, and include scientists, clinicians, and laypeople with personal connections to hearing and balance conditions.
What kind of hearing research is HHF funding now?
HHF’s focus has always been and remains funding the basic science that propels scientific knowledge forward and comprises the building blocks in the development of new treatments, devices, and approaches. Basic science research is foundational and critical to finding cures for hearing loss.
Work on restoring hearing via gene therapy is promising, and certainly inspires interest and excitement in the broader public. HRP-funded projects are working toward identifying the most promising gene mechanism to regrow human inner ear hair cells. Hopefully, this will restore hearing in many people with hearing loss and likely address other hearing-related disorders, such as tinnitus.
ERG-funded projects run the gamut of hearing and balance disorders, since advances in any one area of otology may contribute to advances in another, given the shared biological system in which all these investigators work. Funding early-career researchers, the next generation of scientific leaders, is critically important. The ERG program funds not only innovative projects but also promising researchers who are demonstrating, often early in their careers, the potential to make crucial discoveries and advances in the coming years and decades.
How does HHF see a cure for hearing loss being realized?
HHF expects that a potential cure for hearing loss may be realized through hair cell regeneration. Many instances of hearing loss are sensorineural: caused by the death of sensory cells (hair cells) of the inner ear. Most animals—including birds, frogs, and fish—are capable of regenerating their hair cells after these cells have died. However, mammals—including humans—cannot regenerate hair cells in the cochlea (hearing organ) of their inner ears, making sensorineural hearing loss in humans permanent.
HHF’s researchers do not have a projected timeline for when hair cell regeneration will be ready for clinical trials in humans. Until they reach that stage, HHF is optimistic that many other, significant findings will continue to arise through basic science research, through which many unanticipated discoveries often emerge.
Federal funding support for hearing loss research in the U.S. is low relative to its disease burden and continues to decrease. Additional funding for the Hearing Restoration Project, which is solely focused on this line of research, and the Emerging Research Grants program, which also funds some scientists working on gene therapy and hair cell regeneration issues, will expedite this process.
Why is hearing research not better funded, given the prevalence of hearing loss?
Hearing loss is a great disability, but not a direct cause of death, meaning that more serious health conditions tend to receive more funding. However, hearing loss does present with many comorbidities, like dementia, falls, loneliness, isolation, and depression, which can contribute to early mortality. Further, hearing loss remains in society a “hidden” disability, and hearing aids still widely stigmatized (80 percent of those who could benefit from a hearing aid do not wear one, according to Stanford), meaning that it remains overlooked by funders and policymakers.
What should the consumer do when faced with the question of who to donate money to?
Consumers are strongly encouraged to consider an organization’s financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency before making a charitable contribution. Charity watchdogs like the Better Business Bureau – Wise Giving Alliance, Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch publish impartial nonprofit evaluations to help donors make informed giving decisions. HHF is proud to maintain top rankings from each of these watchdogs as well as having been named as one of Consumer Reports’ annual “Best Charities for Your Money” list for four consecutive years. Every dollar raised is spent efficiently. Through the generosity of HHF’s board, the organization is able to fund vital research without overhead costs to donors.
What take-aways would HHF like to convey to readers?
- Protect your hearing, because hearing loss is likely to affect you. Sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when sensory (hair) cells in the inner ear are damaged, is permanent. Preserve your hearing. Hearing loss caused by noise is fully preventable. According to the CDC, hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the U.S. and is more prevalent than diabetes or cancer. About 48 million people in the U.S., or 15 percent, have hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Cures are urgently needed, and additional financial support will bring us closer to them. A permanent medical solution to hearing loss will drastically improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people and will protect them from the dangers of untreated or undertreated hearing loss, including cognitive decline, falls, loneliness, and depression.
Want to get more involved with HHF?