Translational hearing center named for pioneering alumnus
When Creighton biology student Izzy Shehan was a baby, her parents banged pots and pans just a few feet behind her. She didn’t jump or cry. That was the day they learned she had profound hearing loss.
Shehan (pictured above right in the lab with Peter Steyger, PhD) — who uses cochlear implant devices to hear — was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, though it possibly worsened during infancy. The causes are unknown, which has remained a point of curiosity all her life. She has theories, of course, but the data has always been insufficient.
When Shehan first arrived at Creighton, she knew she wanted to do three things: pursue undergraduate research; learn more about, and from, the deaf and hearing-impaired community; and help people with hearing loss.
Fortunately, Creighton has a translational hearing center dedicated to all three.
Shehan has worked in the lab of Peter Steyger, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences and director of the center. With Steyger’s team of researchers, Shehan is helping to identify interventions that will allow clinicians to treat patients with aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic) without the side effects that can come with them: inner ear dysfunction, hearing loss and, ultimately, profound deafness. In the U.S., about 100,000 people are treated with multiple doses of aminoglycosides every year.
Steyger’s relationship to the research is highly personal. When he was 14 months old, he contracted bacterial meningitis. Aminoglycoside antibiotics saved his life but took his hearing in the process. Like Shehan, Steyger hears with the aid of a cochlear implant.
Through her work, Shehan says she is “discovering what kind of physician I want to be before I’m in medical school. I’m already thinking I want to be an ear, nose and throat physician who specializes in cochlear implants.”
Steyger, Shehan and dozens of other Creighton professors and students across several labs in multiple schools and colleges are profoundly aware of the potential life-changing practical applications of their research.
Through what is perhaps the premier center for translational hearing loss research in the nation, they continue the work and legacy of a Creighton alumnus who never stopped asking, “Why do people lose hearing? How can we preserve it? How can we restore it?”
In May, Creighton’s translational hearing center became the Dr. Richard J. Bellucci Translational Hearing Center, named for Richard Bellucci, MD’42, who died in 2005. He was one of the most influential conductive hearing loss clinicians and researchers of the 20th century.
As the chair of otolaryngology at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in his native New York City, Bellucci was renowned for his work in stapedectomy, a surgery in which a prothesis is inserted into the middle ear to improve hearing, and many other achievements.
“Richard’s greatest joy in life was helping people; it drove him in everything he did,” says Kevin O’Leary, Bellucci’s friend and the president of the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation, whose recent gift to the hearing center continues the foundation’s transformative support. The foundation’s 2019 grant created the hearing center.
Like Bellucci himself, the center focuses on the translational aspect of research, which translates laboratory discoveries into practical treatments and therapies for patients.
Bellucci Translational Hearing Center faculty scientists across multiple disciplines train the next generation of hearing researchers. Together, they seek solutions to preserve and restore hearing through the study of sensory cell regeneration, gene therapy and drug intervention. At front of mind, Steyger says, is the real-world impact hearing loss has on people’s lives, the untold amounts of energy they have to expend every day to participate in the broader world.
Since 2019, the hearing center and the Department of Biomedical Sciences have hosted the annual Bellucci Symposium on Hearing Research, sponsored by the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation, at which researchers and clinicians from across the country come together to share and discuss the latest findings in their field.