This is a PhD studentship being carried out by Katherine Hardy in the laboratory of Professor Walter Marcotti at the University of Sheffield. Katherine started working on her project in October 2015 and will finish in September 2018.
Our inner ear contains specialised hair cells that are responsible for hearing and balance. People often lose their hearing as they get older because the hair cells that are responsible for detecting sound die and are not replaced. It is crucial, therefore, that we find ways to protect them or regenerate those that are lost.
Hair cells detect and process sound information, and transmit this with remarkable precision and efficiency to nerve cells, which then pass it on to the brain. We've obtained most of our understanding of how this information is processed by hair cells, and their associated nerve fibres, through experiments conducted on cells and tissue taken from mice or other rodents.
The hair cells of the lateral line organ of the zebrafish (used by the fish to detect movements in the water around them), are very similar to those found in the mammalian inner ear. Recent research has shown that zebrafish could be used as a model system to understand the biological processes of hearing loss. This is a timely opportunity to move the field forward.
Katherine's overriding aim is to establish a new animal model so that researchers can study hair cell function and the processing of sound information. Zebrafish are ideal for this study: in recent years, scientists have used them more and more to study the genetic basis of hearing loss and deafness – and to investigate the chemicals that protect and damage hair cells.
Katherine's project will establish and refine the use of zebrafish as a model system. Researchers will use this to identify drugs that influence the way hair cells work, trigger their regeneration or protect them. Moreover, Katherine's research will provide us with a better understanding of hereditary hearing loss and lay the foundations for developing effective gene therapy treatments.