A&M Researcher Takes On Deafness By Studying Zebrafish

By: Alex Lotz Email
By: Alex Lotz Email

COLLEGE STATION These fish are not swimming in a pet store, but serve as lab rats. Hidden behind their stripes is scientific research that could help change the lives for thousands of people who suffer from hearing loss.

"They're amazing," said Texas A&M biologist Bruce Riley.

He says these Zebrafish could one day help researchers restore hearing in humans. "When we lose hearing, we can never regain it, but Zebrafish retain the ability to restore hearing throughout their life," Riley said.

He's teamed up with about 20,000 fish to take down deafness. "People take hearing for granted. It's hearing that connects us to people," Riley said.

By studying the inner ear development of the fish embryos, the biologist has found that the fish are able to regenerate their sensory hair cells.

"So, there you can see two different patches," Riley said examining a cell. "In fact, this is the patch here that is used for hearing." Without these cells, the fish, like humans would not be able to hear and would have no balance.

He says the Zebrafish genes are very similar to human genes. "We've identified some of the key genes that control early steps in hair cell regeneration and development."

The A&M biologist recently received a $1.5 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his research.

"If we understand how a system develops, then it makes it a lot easier to correct conditions when the organ stops functioning," Riley said.

One fish at a time, Riley believes he is getting closer to restoring human deafness and says gene therapy approaches will ultimately prove effective at restoring human deafness.


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