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Sea anemone research leads to possible hearing loss repairs

Sea Anemone

A University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor who is hard of hearing has spearheaded a study into the possible application of proteins produced by sea anemone into the human ear as a remedy for noise-induced hearing aids.

Glen Watson, Ph.D., and his colleagues researched how sea anemones can repair their damaged hair cells, no matter how bad the damage is, and found the anemones secrete a particular set of repair proteins. Watson then isolated those proteins and used them first to treat fish.

“It turns out that sea anemones have a specific set of cells on their tentacles that respond to vibrations in the water,” Watson said.

He said fish have hair cells on the surface of their skin which are used to navigate currents and detect predators and prey. The hair cells on the fish were then experimentally damaged and put with the proteins secreted by sea anemone. The fish healed perfectly.

Most recently, Watson tested the application of the proteins on baby mice by taking the cells out of the ears of the mice and damaging them. Watson then put them with the same proteins and observed how the proteins completely repaired the function of the cells.

“This implies that it may be possible to treat someone who experienced a tremendously loud noise,” Watson said, “if we can catch the damaged hair cell before it dies. The question is: What’s the window of opportunity or timeframe?”

Based on studies of hair cells, Watson said, the time frame might be about a week. An additional challenge is determining how to apply the proteins to the cells in the human ear. It would need to be a “very small and difficult injection” through the eardrum and into the cochlea.

According to Karen Smith, Ph.D, an assistant professor at UL Lafayette researching neurobiology and development who helped with the project, said the research could be beneficial to victims of injury caused by “loud acoustic exposure,” such as improvised explosive devices, bomb blasts or workplace accidents where there is an exceptionally loud event that causes hearing damage. The research will have little applicable effect on cases of long term damage and cell death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about four million workers go to work each day in damaging noise and 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year. Additionally, 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from noise-related hearing loss.

The Hearing Loss Association of America finds that about 20 percent of Americans, 48 million people, report some degree of hearing loss. One out of three people reports experiencing hearing loss by the age of 65.

Smith said the research could also have significant real-world application.

“So it’s my understanding that there’s some interest in developing this further. I’m really excited about that,” Smith said.

The vibrations alert sea anemone to the presence of prey, Watson said. The cells that respond to the vibrations produced by the prey are very much like the ones humans have in their ears that respond to sound. The sound is converted into fluid movements around the cells in human ears that respond.

Hair cells in the human ear, if overstimulated, have a tendency to die and not be replaced, Watson said. The scenario causes a region along this tissue in our ear where hair cells are located to have no response and result in a sensory deficit that we call deafness.

Sea anemone, however, have a unique reparation ability that humans lack.

“In the case of the sea anemones, if the hair cells are overstimulated … the sea anemone can repair the damaged hair bundles,” Watson said.

Watson said humans have a very weak repair system that will recover from moderate overstimulation, but not severe overstimulation. The system takes effect within 48 hours.

“For example, if you go to a night club and the music is loud, when you leave there you may notice that you don’t hear as well as you’re walking to your car,” said Watson. “You and your friends laugh about it. If the damage was not too severe then within 48 hours, it recovers. If it was severe, those cells die and you forever have a gap in the range of sounds and frequencies you can hear. That translates into you becoming imprecise in your hearing.”

Watson’s research combines his passion for science with issues that plague both him and millions of workers daily.

“The most frequent word I say everyday is ‘what?’” he said.

“He’s a true scientist,” Smith said. “He’s really excited about the fundamental basic knowledge and the nitty gritty of how cells work and how biophysical processes happen. He’s very enthusiastic about research and cell biology.”

Watson doesn’t know how he lost his hearing. According to Watson, the causes of hearing loss include genetic predisposition and Watson’s father was hard of hearing. He was also involved in early rock music so it could be from noise exposure. The vast majority of noise-induced hearing loss is completely painless.

In the meantime, Watson has one constant message for millenials around campus with headphones: “Turn the music down.”

“If someone has to raise their voice to get your attention, it’s too loud,” Watson said.

Editor’s note: Staff writer Melissa Watson is the daughter of Glen Watson. Melissa was not involved in any aspect of this story’s production.

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