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Creighton professor secures $2.5m to research hearing loss

Nov 2, 2023
3 min Read
Eugene Curtin
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Two federal grants totaling almost $2.5 million have been awarded to a Creighton professor whose primary research targets Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hearing loss.     

Marisa Zallocchi, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the Creighton School of Medicine, has been asked by the National Institutes of Health to study the role of Usher proteins during development of the inner ear. 

The U.S. Department of Defense has asked Zallocchi to study natural compound-based therapies that might guard against noise-induced hearing loss.  

The NIH grant is $2.1 million and covers a five-year study. The DoD grant is for $363,750 and funds a two-year study investigating acquired rather than genetic hearing loss.   

Graduate and undergraduate students will assist with the research, Zallocchi says, continuing Creighton’s long-established principle of introducing students to the principles of research.  

For the DoD, Zallocchi is asked to investigate the properties of Piper longum, or the Indian long pepper, to see whether compounds derived from the pepper reduce or prevent noise-induced hearing loss in animals.  

“I am planning to employ different noise models, one that results in the loss of the synapses that transmit the signal from the ear into the central nervous system and another that results in permanent hearing loss because of the cell death,” she says. “I am interested in analyzing whether natural product therapy can protect the inner ear.”   

Although a lot is known regarding cell types in the inner ear ... there is still a lot that we do not know.
— Marisa Zallocchi, PhD

Usher syndrome is a genetic disorder that can be congenital, which means a baby is born deaf, or progressive, meaning the individual will develop hearing loss during the early years and later develop blindness.     

“I am interested in the hearing aspect of this disease,” Zallocchi says. “There are 10 Usher genes involved in this disease and although some of their function have been characterized, there is still a lot that we do not know.     

“The idea is to use different animal models to study the contribution of each cell type within the inner ear to the Usher syndrome phenotype. I am planning to delete some of the Usher genes from three different cell types in the inner ear and then study the development of the inner ear and its function.”  

Zallocchi, a native of Argentina who received her PhD in biological chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, performed postdoctoral work before joining Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, first as a research assistant and then as staff scientist and director of the Functional Genetics Laboratory. She joined Creighton’s faculty in 2019.     

“When I finished my PhD, I was looking for a position outside Argentina,” she says. “I joined the existing Usher Center at Boys Town in 2006 and have been researching in that field since then. I love it.”