A Vision for Hearing Research

A Vision for Hearing Research

Creighton’s new Translational Hearing Center seeks significant breakthroughs, buoyed by a gift from the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation and a director who, himself, experienced childhood hearing loss.

By Adam Klinker

Eighty years ago, an aspiring physician, the son of Italian immigrants to the United States, landed at the Creighton University School of Medicine.

He graduated in 1942 and returned to his native New York City, where he made some of the 20th century’s most important contributions in the fields of otology and otolaryngology, loaning his name to several procedures and instruments that have helped the deaf to hear and staved off hearing loss for many.

About 25 years after Richard Bellucci, MD’42, graduated from Creighton, a 14-month-old boy in Manchester, England, contracted bacterial meningitis. Physicians managed to save the child’s life through a course of aminoglycoside antibiotics, but a side effect of those drugs robbed him of his hearing.

Now, Peter Steyger, PhD, with a doctorate in neuroscience and hundreds of publications on ototoxicity and cochlear anatomy, has dedicated his life and career to preventing a similar fate for other children. He is doing so in the spirit and legacy of Bellucci, a man who Steyger says has inspired a generation of physicians and researchers in the field of hearing loss. In May, Steyger joined Creighton as director of the School of Medicine’s Translational Hearing Center (THC), in a move that he says is “a dream scenario that will help me fulfill my life’s goals.”

“The vision here at Creighton to do the preclinical, otoprotective work and the collaborative environment here is absolutely phenomenal and central to translational medicine,” says Steyger, who spent more than two decades at the Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon Hearing Research Center.

Steyger joins the chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Jian Zuo, PhD, in inaugurating the work of the Translational Hearing Center, perpetuating the work of Bellucci, whose pioneering surgical and otolaryngology work continues to inspire.

A longtime president of the American Otological Society, Bellucci’s middle-ear prosthesis and his invention and advancement of a procedure to remove a portion of the middle ear to help improve hearing remain storied moments in the physician’s career.

Bellucci started the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation in part to connect his longtime loves — medicine, helping his patients and his alma mater.

“Dr. Bellucci was a very humble man, a very intelligent man,” says Kevin O’Leary, president of the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation, and a friend of Bellucci’s in the physician’s later years. Bellucci, who died in 2005 at the age of 91, received Creighton’s highest alumni honor, the Alumni Achievement Citation, in 2004.

“At the end of the day, everything came back to a few things: his love of practicing medicine, of helping patients and his great love for Creighton. The Translational Hearing Center fits all of those perfectly, and we at the foundation are looking forward to seeing what great work is going to come out of the center. Dr. Steyger and Dr. Zuo are doing the work that Dr. Bellucci wanted the foundation to do.”

Steyger says Bellucci’s career is evidence of just how clinical and bench researchers, surgical and laboratory work, can go hand in glove in crucial, collaborative ways.

“I’ve worked with some wonderful, brilliant researchers on very difficult problems, yet we were all in our own zone,” Steyger says. “What Creighton has done across disciplines and in partnering with other institutions gives us the opportunity to learn and discover alongside one another and translate those discoveries to prevent hearing loss or restore hearing to a lot of people. Dr. Bellucci translated his vision and ideas into practice and the Translational Hearing Center seeks to recapitulate what he did. That we can do it at Creighton, at his alma mater, is especially meaningful.”

The Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation has donated $300,000 to the Translational Hearing Center to further its work and, in May, the Department of Biomedical Sciences hosted the inaugural Bellucci Symposium on Hearing Research, sponsored by the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation.

At the symposium, physicians and researchers in hearing loss learned more about Bellucci’s contributions to the field and learned about how the Translational Hearing Center will build on basic science discoveries that enhance the potential to restore hearing.

The center also will collaborate with Boys Town National Research Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The expansive effort, Steyger says, makes it all the more likely that researchers will make significant breakthroughs.

“We can move with more velocity,” Steyger says. “Creighton has a long history in auditory research, as does Boys Town. The kinds of credentials these researchers have and their willingness to work collaboratively was a major reason I came to Creighton.”

Steyger arrived at Creighton with a major National Institutes of Health grant in tow and another $3.5 million grant on the way from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). The grants are dedicated to preventing, through clinical or pharmaceutical interventions, the kind of hearing loss Steyger experienced. The center will also examine the potential to restore hearing via repairing or replacing damaged hearing cells.

Ten Creighton faculty from the School of Medicine, the School of Dentistry and the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, with another three new faculty researchers to be hired, will comprise the Translational Hearing Center. Graduate students and undergraduates will also play crucial roles in the THC laboratories.

Zuo will head up drug design for the center.

“There is a lot of synergy on this, a lot of interprofessional collaboration that is making this possible,” says Zuo, who was hired in April 2018 and is working on a project to target at what point and in what populations antibiotics or chemotherapy drugs for cancer affect hearing. “There are some very promising pathways that Dr. Steyger has identified, and some compounds that we’ve identified. The great thing is that our vision, our goals, are identical in this: to develop the first drug that could prevent this kind of hearing loss in children.”

Steyger notes the incidence of hearing loss for children in the U.S. under the age of 2 is about 1 in 200, typically caused by trauma, infection or antibiotic drugs. By 18, about 1 in 20 children experience hearing loss. From there, the frequency increases with age-related hearing loss added into the mix.

Since he was 2, Steyger has been outfitted with the latest in technological advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants that, ironically, give him an advantage as he gets older and hears better.

“Many in my age bracket are now experiencing age-related hearing loss,” he says. “I’m going the other way. The technology is really amazing in rehabilitating hearing loss. But what would be even better is if we could prevent hearing loss in the first place and give everyone that natural ability to hear.”

In any given year, some 100,000 people in the U.S. are treated with aminoglycosides, the antibiotics that caused Steyger’s hearing loss, and up to another 500,000 are treated with chemotherapy drugs that cause hearing loss. Developing an effective compound to forestall that side effect is the center’s primary aim.

The THC also will be looking at the potential to regrow the cochlear hair cells that, when depleted, lead to deafness. These sensory cells, which do not regenerate in humans, are readily renewed in fish, amphibians and birds. Sonia Rocha-Sanchez, PhD, assistant dean for research in the School of Dentistry, has begun work on such a project and will be one of the core faculty at the THC.

After several visits to Creighton, Steyger is eager to begin the work that, for him, was set into motion when he was a youngster.

“It gets me up out of bed in the morning,” he says. “I’m very passionate about this, and it keeps me motivated when setbacks occur. It’s a way to pay forward the support I have received in the past. Hearing is vital to communication. Perceiving sound is integral to music, listening to stories, theater. That all contributes to the richness of human experience.”