A close collaboration with the NIDCD
Johns hopkins’ growing affiliations with hospitals across the country and the world have provided new opportunities for the institution and its faculty—and Wade Chien is no exception. The neurotologist, who joined the medical faculty in 2011, practically leaped at the chance to partially move his practice to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., one of Hopkins’ newest affiliations.
However, the only problem is that Chien’s research, focused on finding new ways to treat the type of hearing loss most common in aging, would suffer. With the daily need to look after cells and lab animals, Chien would either need to continually commute back to a lab at Hopkins or drop his promising research program altogether.
But Chien’s mentor, John Niparko, director of Hopkins’ Listening Center, saw another way. One of the biggest advantages of Hopkins’ new relationship with Suburban is the hospital’s proximity to the main campus of the National Institutes of Health. For Chien, being able to continue his research at the NIH would also allow him to collaborate with some of the brightest minds in biomedical research.
In late July of last year, Chien began setting up his own experiments in the laboratories of Lisa Cunningham, the NIDCD’s (National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders) section chief on sensory cell biology, and Matthew Kelly, the NIDCD’s section chief on developmental neuroscience.
With Cunningham, Chien’s work is focused on trying to develop a new way to treat hearing loss using gene therapy. In some people, hearing loss is caused by defective genes. If scientists could replace these genes with healthy ones, Chien explains, they might be able to cure this problem. The challenge is getting the new genes into the patients’ affected cells. Researchers still don’t have a reliable way to deliver genes to specific cell types affected by these disorders.
That’s where Chien’s work comes in. With Cunningham’s mentorship, Chien is researching how to package the desired genes into viruses that then invade the preferred cell types without causing undue damage to the inner ear.
With Kelly, Chien is also working on a second project to develop stem cells into new hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons, mature cells whose death over time leads to the hearing loss most adults experience with age. Tapping Kelly’s expertise in developmental biology, Chien is working to understand what leads stem cells to develop into these adult cells during development, knowledge necessary to steer stem cells to differentiate into these cells in the lab.
Right now, Chien is the only member of Hopkins’ Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck surgery to have this unique relationship with the NIDCD. But he says he hopes other members of the faculty will be able to forge similar relationship with the NIDCD’s scientists.