Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine(UMSOM) have discovered that a critical protein called GFI1 plays an important role in the development of hair cells that are necessary for hearing. In the research, it was discovered that a part of these cells amplify sounds that come into the ear and the other part of the cells transform sound waves into electrical signals in order to travel to the brain.

This study was conducted by physician-scientists and researchers at the UMSOM Department of Otorhinolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery and the UMSOM Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS). This study was a collaboration with researchers at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel and it was published in the journal ‘Development’.

Hearing depends on the hair cell development in the inner ear. These hair cells must have complete development for proper hearing. In case, these hair cells are damaged or not properly developed, it may lead to loss of hearing ability. The major reason for damaged hair cells might be the exposure to loud noises. Eg: Using headphones for a long time with loud noise

Studies have shown that in the United States, the prevalence of the loss of the ability to hear doubles with every 10 year increase in age. Hearing aids were found to be more common in age old people. Adults that are over the age 70 and 85 have been affected by hearing aids highly. These problems occur only when the old hair cells are damaged. Hence many research are being conducted in order describing the development of the hair cells. 

To conduct this study, Dr. Hertzano along with her team used cutting-edge methods for studying gene expressions in the hair cells of genetically modified newborn mice that cannot produce the critical protein GFI1. This research clearly suggested that without this critical protein called GFI1, the hair cells failed to develop fully. 

Dr. Hertzano said that their findings explain why GFI1 is critical to enable embryonic cells to progress into functioning adult hair cells. This research has clearly explained the importance of GFI1 in regenerating hair cells from stem cells. Hence this method can be used in adults who have experienced hearing loss. 

This research was initiated by Dr. Hertzano. She came to know about the critical protein GFI1 while completing her M.D., Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University. During her dissertation, she discovered that another protein called POU4F3 appeared to largely result from the loss of GFI1 protein in the hair cells. That was the starting point that induced her interest on this topic. Since then, she started conducting many experiments on the critical protein GFI1 and the hair cell development.

The study was funded by two huge organizations including The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders(NIDCD) and Binational Scientific Foundation(BSF).

Hertzano added, “Hearing research has been going through a Renaissance period, not only from advances in genomics and methodology, but also thanks to its uniquely collaborative nature among researchers”.