Prof. Karen B. Avraham from Tel Aviv University, chair of the Scientific Committee of the Fondation Pour l’Audition (APA) since 2014, answers our questions.
Can you briefly present yourself? What inspired you to forge a career in hearing sciences?
My career in hearing sciences began in 1990 with Snell’s waltzer, a model for human hearing loss. At the time, we knew very little about the genes associated with hearing loss. As I had joined the National Cancer Institute in order to study human disease and
disorders, working to discover the cause of deafness in Snell’s waltzer fit right in with my goals. I was fascinated by the structure and function of the inner ear and how the loss of one gene could cause the entire cascade of hearing to fail.
Our group at Tel Aviv University has focused on several questions:
- What are the genes that lead to hearing loss and how are they involved in normal function of the inner ear?
- How does the regulation of genes determine inner ear function and how do alterations in gene expression contribute to the pathology of deafness?
I have also been committed to being active in the community by delivering public lectures on the genetics of hearing loss, and have been involved in providing education about the genetics of hearing loss to support groups and associations for the hearing impaired, as well as training of hearing impaired graduate students at our university. This engagement has reinforced my desire to help hearing health science worldwide.
How would you describe the APA Scientific Committee, its expertise and its work?
The APA Scientific Committee is dedicated to drive hearing research and collaborations, in particular in France. Strengthening the research resources and infrastructure will enable the scientists, in particular graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty to develop and continue to build on our understanding of how proper hearing is processed. The achievements obtained with increased funding will guide scientists to develop therapeutics towards preserving hearing and treating or curing hearing loss. The funding is facilitated by the rigorous grant review process undertaken by the APA Scientific Committee.
What do you perceive to be the biggest challenges in hearing research?
The biggest challenge will be to reach all people who have a hearing loss, once treatments or cures are developed on a cellular and gene therapy level. But first, these therapeutic methods need to be developed in models and translated to use in humans.
What do you consider to be the most exciting development in hearing research at present?
The ability to discover the genetic basis of deafness in hearing impaired persons has been remarkable, with a few genes known in 1990 to hundreds today. Because half of all instances of hearing loss are linked to genetic changes, these discoveries have been invaluable for helping families understand why they are deaf, with implications for future clinical management, determining the prognosis of hearing loss and other potential health issues and assessing the recurrence rate in additional family members. Improved high-throughput technologies have had a great impact on these gene discoveries in recent years. This work has been done side by side with dissection of the molecular components of all parts of the inner ear using high-throughput techniques, which will have a tremendous impact on our understanding of the inner ear towards development of cellular and gene therapy.
What have you enjoyed most about being the chair of the Committee so far?
The interaction with leading scientists in the field has been a tremendous learning experience. Each member of the Committee arrives with a different area of expertise, as hearing health and science is so varied. It has also been extremely satisfying to see which grants are funded to further the careers of post-doctoral fellows and fund laboratories and we are so excited to follow the progress of the research funded by APA.
What are you looking forward this year as part of the scientific activities of Agir Pour l’Audition?
We will finally meet some of the awardees of the APA grants in October, as well as the APA Early Career Scientific Prize and the APA Scientific Grand Prize winners, and hear about their research accomplishments first hand. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to meet the scientists who are working extremely hard to make a dedicated impact to hearing health in France and beyond.