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      Scientifically speaking – Professor Karen Avraham

      Professor Karen Avraham is a world-leading genetic specialist who runs her own lab at Tel Aviv University. Her research focusses on understanding the genetic basis of hereditary hearing loss.

      By: Professor Karen Avraham | 17 February 2020
      The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 466 million people worldwide with a hearing loss. This is a problem that has an impact on children as they’re discovering the world, but also has long-term repercussions for their development into adults.

      We’re still some years from effective treatments using gene therapy, as it’s a long process from the lab to the clinic. But health professionals can already help those with a genetic hearing loss with a diagnosis, which can provide critical information regarding rehabilitation options. Sometimes, it can also provide information about what the future holds in terms of the progression of their hearing loss. We are getting closer and I’m optimistic that our research will make an impact.

      In fact, there’s never been a more exciting time in my field of research. Multidisciplinary teams are working together like never before – major breakthroughs have been made in understanding the mechanisms of the inner ear. There is a new biotech space opening up, as gene and cell therapy become tangible possibilities as treatments for hearing loss and giving people an improved quality of life.

      My work in hearing research


      During my PhD, I decided to pursue my post-doctoral training at a mammalian genetics lab. This was early days in the field (none of the genes for deafness had been discovered at that time). In 1995 I identified one of the first deafness genes in mice. I moved to Tel Aviv University to start my own lab and added human genetics into my work, taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities for studying families with hereditary hearing loss from the Middle East.

      Given the complexity of the inner ear and of the hearing process itself from
      ear to brain, many of us predicted that mutations in many different genes
      would lead to hearing loss. This prediction has been confirmed many times over – and is the basis of the genomic technologies I have integrated into our research.

      Our team at Tel Aviv University is currently asking the questions: what are the genes that lead to hearing loss and how are they involved in the normal function of the inner ear? Also, how does epigenetics (a biological process that controls whether genes are active or silent) impact on inner ear function and contribute to the pathology of deafness?

      We have already discovered close to 50 rare variants (alteration in genes) for deafness and we were the first to identify specific genetic targets in the inner ear. We have now added gene therapy to our gene discovery and gene expression and regulation studies.

      A new programme of research


      The Action on Hearing Loss Flexi Grant we received helped get us on our feet.
      The funding was just what we needed to set up epigenetics of the auditory system in our lab and run one solid preliminary experiment. The initial challenge was to collect enough high-quality DNA from inner ears to understand what drives these changes.

      Ofer Yizhar-Barnea, then a PhD student in my lab and now a post-doc at the University of California, spent over a year optimizing these experiments. This work served as preliminary data for our US-Israel Binational Science Foundation grant, which we’ve been awarded for four years, and the first part of the project resulting from these grants was published this year in a leading science journal.

      Why is your research important to you?


      It’s my goal to mentor a new generation of scientists, and help people with hearing loss have an improved quality of life. I absolutely love my job, juggling my lab’s research and admin duties as Vice Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. To unwind, I swim several times a week but I’m known to spend time at the pool with my laptop! Every summer I go rafting and camping in Oregon and Idaho.

      Karen Avraham

      Recent Posts

      Could ‘chemical earmuffs’ prevent noise-induced hearing damage?

      Researchers in the US have identified molecules in the inner ear that are involved in the damage that loud noise causes to hearing. Blocking their activity protected against this damage when mice were exposed to loud noise. These findings could form the basis of new treatments to protect people’s hearing from noise.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      16 March 2020

      Helping patients to be heard: What the new NICE guidance means for people with tinnitus

      Imagine you’re trying to enjoy a moment of silence, but it’s interrupted by a relentless ringing noise. What if this happened all day, every day? That’s persistent tinnitus, and as an audiologist, I see the impact of this condition every day.

      By: Vai Maheswaran
      11 March 2020

      A clinical trial of a new investigational drug for vertigo in Ménière’s disease - OTO-104

      A clinical study team are looking for volunteers to test their new investigational drug, OTO-104, for vertigo episodes in Ménière’s disease.

      By: The OTO-104 Study Team
      11 March 2020

      Our future research leaders

      Last month, we invited our PhD students and our early-career Fellows to visit our head office in Highbury, to find out more about the work we do, to meet each other and to meet our staff. Marta Narkiewicz, from our research team, tells us more about the day.

      By: Marta Narkiewicz
      10 March 2020

      Recent Posts

      Could ‘chemical earmuffs’ prevent noise-induced hearing damage?

      Researchers in the US have identified molecules in the inner ear that are involved in the damage that loud noise causes to hearing. Blocking their activity protected against this damage when mice were exposed to loud noise. These findings could form the basis of new treatments to protect people’s hearing from noise.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      16 March 2020

      Helping patients to be heard: What the new NICE guidance means for people with tinnitus

      Imagine you’re trying to enjoy a moment of silence, but it’s interrupted by a relentless ringing noise. What if this happened all day, every day? That’s persistent tinnitus, and as an audiologist, I see the impact of this condition every day.

      By: Vai Maheswaran
      11 March 2020

      A clinical trial of a new investigational drug for vertigo in Ménière’s disease - OTO-104

      A clinical study team are looking for volunteers to test their new investigational drug, OTO-104, for vertigo episodes in Ménière’s disease.

      By: The OTO-104 Study Team
      11 March 2020

      Our future research leaders

      Last month, we invited our PhD students and our early-career Fellows to visit our head office in Highbury, to find out more about the work we do, to meet each other and to meet our staff. Marta Narkiewicz, from our research team, tells us more about the day.

      By: Marta Narkiewicz
      10 March 2020

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      Our ears are our organs of hearing and balance. They have three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear.