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Studying the inner ear and advancing research in developmental biology

hellerResearcher Stefan Heller, PhD, came to Stanford in 2005 from Harvard. His laboratory focuses on inner ear development and works on approaches to regenerate sensory hair cells, scarce sensory receptor cells that are essential for our senses of hearing and balance.

As I explained in an article about his arrival, Heller's goal was to come here and collaborate with others to devise "a variety of possible cures for deafness from drug therapy treatment - which could be as simple as an application of ear drops-to stem cell transplantation into the inner ear to remedy hearing loss." Since then, his lab has continued to add to the body of research on the inner ear's early development and to pave the way towards regenerative therapies for hearing loss. The researchers' most recent milestone (subscription required) - during which they designed the most detailed 3-D model to date of the otocyst, the embryonic structure in vertebrates that develops into the inner ear in the adult - was published online this month in the journal Cell.

In a video on the journal website, Heller and the lead author of the study, Robert Durruthy-Durruthy, a PhD candidate, describe the mathematical method used that allows the 3-D reconstruction of the developing inner ear. Russ Altman, PhD and Assaf Gottlieb, PhD, from Stanford bioengineering were collaborators of the study.

Heller recently described to me how microfluidics technology developed in the lab of Stanford bioengineering professor Stephen Quake, PhD, was essential to analyze single cells in order to develop the blue prints for their 3-D model. The approach is new in biology, Heller said. Much like dismantling the engine of a car into its smallest parts, taking apart a simple organ into single cells results in the challenge of putting the pieces back together.  “Our new method provides a good strategy for such reconstructions,” Heller said.

Heller also explained how this advancement will help as he continues researching early ear development and working on growing inner ear sensory hair cells, the linchpin for hearing. (Hair cells exist in limited numbers in human ears and once they are gone, hearing loss occurs.) He said:

This [paper] gives us deep insight into how this organ forms in early development. It identifies the different cell types and defines them in much more detail than previously known. It provides details about the inner ear progenitor cells that we are trying to generate from stem cells. Having this blue print will help us to generate sensory hair cells more efficiently and hopefully to regenerate hair cells at some time in the future.

The technology, Heller said, can also benefit others: "It can be used to reconstruct all kinds of things, other simple organs, perhaps even simple multicellular organisms, or structures like tumors."

Previously: Regenerating sensory hair cells to restore hearing to noise-damaged ears, Stanford chair of otolaryngology discusses future regenerative therapies for hearing loss, Stefan Heller discusses stem cell research on Science Friday and Growing new inner ear cells a step toward a cure for deafness
Photo by Steve Fisch

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