Do chickens hold the key to a cure for hearing loss?

Chickens have the amazing ability to restore their own hearing, and this trait is inspiring a nonprofit organization in their search for a cure for hearing loss in humans.

The Hearing Health Foundation’s “Chirp the News” video features the group’s new mascot: a baby chick. Locked within the ears of this chick is the potential to restore hearing and cure tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 36 million adults in the U.S. have some form of hearing loss, and 25 million are affected by tinnitus.

“As someone who lives with hearing loss every day, I am personally thrilled with the prospects for a cure,” said Shari Eberts, chairman of the Hearing Health Foundation’s Board of Directors, in an email to Healthline. “Life with hearing loss can be frustrating. Sometimes you miss the joke when everyone else is laughing, and sometimes you miss important information because you don't hear it. Supportive family and friends can make living with hearing loss easier, but a genuine cure would be life changing.”

The Chicken’s Magic Ears
The secret to the chicken’s auditory magic is that supporting cells in its inner ear can replace hair cells that have been damaged by loud noises or other causes.

And chickens aren’t the only animals that can restore their own damaged hearing. All vertebrates other than mammals can do the same. And preliminary research has shown that mice can regain some of their hearing using supporting cells that turn into hair cells—in the lab, at least.

Researchers supported by the Hearing Health Foundation hope to find a way to coax the supporting cells in the inner ears of people to transform into functional hair cells. Their goal is to have a cure within a decade.

The 10-Year Road to a Cure
For people with hearing loss, waiting a decade for a cure can seem like a lifetime. But in the world of research, this is a very short time to travel from initial scientific discoveries all the way to successful clinical trials in humans.

To speed the research along, the Hearing Health Foundation is supporting a collaboration known as the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) that involves researchers from more than ten institutions, including Harvard Medical School.

To find a successful cure for hearing loss, researchers have plenty o work ahead of them—including identifying how supporting cells in the chicken's ear turn into hair cells, as well as finding potential compounds or drugs that can make this happen in people.

Eberts is optimistic that the project will hit its mark, and so is Ed Rubel, a professor of hearing science at the University of Washington and a member of the project team.

“With sufficient funding,” he says, “the consortium can discover effective pathways and hopefully some lead compounds to promote hair cell regeneration in the mammalian inner ear in the 10-year time frame.”

Many Eggs in Many Baskets
In his lab at the University of Washington, Rubel is working on one piece of the puzzle that may one day lead to hair cell regeneration in people.

“The project on my own has to do with developing a new mouse model to test the pathways and, eventually, the drugs that come out of the HRP,” he said.

The mice developed in his laboratory will be shared among members of the consortium, so they can avoid having to develop their own mice. This kind of sharing is an important aspect of the collaboration, something that Eberts expects will save time and money.

For Rubel, working with the HRP has other benefits.

“The wonderful thing about the consortium,” he says, “is that it includes only people who really want to play in that kind of sandbox—that want to share information, share early-stage information, share the other things that they’re doing in their laboratories, and work together.”

As a person with hearing loss, Eberts supports the push to highlight the project's potential.

“Even though we are in the early stages of the research, we think it is very important that the public learn about our efforts,” she said. “We want them to know that there is hope for a cure and that there are researchers who consider curing hearing loss and tinnitus to be their life’s most important work.”