While Desi Schoo, a third year resident in the Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, has always had a hunch he wanted to become a doctor, he also knew he wanted to do more than practice medicine: he wanted to make new medicine as well. “Doctors in training are often told by the time you graduate, everything you learn will be obsolete,” he says. “An easy way for me to combat this is to be on the forefront and try to make a real difference in the landscape of medicine through discovery.”
That’s why Schoo is spending part of his residency in the Vestibular NeuroEngineering Lab (VNEL) led by otolaryngologist–head and neck surgeon and researcher Charley Della Santina. Through a National Institutes of Health-sponsored T32 grant, which provides two years of dedicated research training to predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees, Schoo is serving as the clinical research coordinator for two first-in-human trials.
The first trial is a multi-center study of gene therapy for patients with bilateral profound sensorineural hearing loss, a condition which typically makes them candidates for cochlear implants (CIs). To determine if these individuals’ hearing might be improved without a CI, the researchers use a surgical technique to inject a viral vector into the inner ear. This vector acts as a carrier for ATOH1, a gene that’s responsible for forming hair cells, which are directly responsible for detecting sound waves and turning them into a signal the brain interprets as hearing.
In the second trial, patients are implanted with a stimulator intended to restore vestibular (inner ear balance) sensation, which is required to maintain clear, steady vision and posture. Based on technology developed at VNEL and operating like a cochlear implant for the semicircular canals—part of the inner ear responsible for balance—this device turns information collected from miniature gyroscopes into electrical signals that stimulate the inner ear.
Throughout these trials, Schoo’s role has been multifaceted, involving patient selection, administering evaluations, data collection, and coordination of a large team of academic and industry colleagues. “It’s extremely rare for a resident to run two first-in-human trials,” says Della Santina. “In doing so, Desi has gained such a depth and breadth of experience that he is poised to become a leader among otolaryngologists focused on this critically important phase of research.”
For Schoo, having this dedicated time to learn about running clinical trials has furthered his interest in becoming a physician-scientist who sees patients in the clinic, operates, develops new treatments in the lab, and launches clinical trials. “The beauty about being a physician-scientist,” says Schoo, “is being able to combine all your interests into one thing.”