Research Centre

Loud and clear

EuroHear aims to discover more about genetic causes of deafness – and communicate its findings across the scientific community.

We have embarked on an ambitious project that bridges scientific disciplines. The European dimension of the programme provides a real added value regarding this objective. “We have embarked on an ambitious project that bridges scientific disciplines. The European dimension of the programme provides a real added value regarding this objective.”

Hearing impairment affects over 10% of Europeans, a total of more than 40 million people across the EU. Given the number of citizens affected, the European Commission’s decision to fund the EuroHear project under FP6 in 2005 speaks for itself. The initiative brings together 250 scientists from 10 countries, with research focusing on innerear development and age-related hearing loss. As EuroHear’s scientific coordinator, Professor Christine Petit of the Institut Pasteur, explains, the project is designed to improve interaction between those in different scientific fields as they work together to discover more about the causes of deafness and, ultimately, develop a cure. Given its success to date, EuroHear intends to carry on its work under FP7.

What are the aims of the EuroHear project?

Our main objectives are to elucidate the genetic bases of deafness and to decipher the pathogenesis of the various forms. We also aim to understand how the cochlea – the sensory organ in the ear – works. Our goal is to put these two fields of research together and thus to pave the way for developing preventive and therapeutic approaches to deafness. With these objectives in mind, our ambition is to achieve European multidisciplinary research on the functioning and dysfunctioning of the cochlea.

Why is the research carried out under EuroHear so important?

Deafness is a serious handicap, but as it is not immediately visible, it tends to be neglected. The social cost of deafness is very high since it impedes communication between people. Our scientific challenges can only be met by combining medical, experimental and theoretical scientific approaches.

What are some of the challenges you face in this project?

Bringing together experts from different fields is only the first step: the greatest hurdle is to succeed in working together. Each of us has his or her focus of research and the willingness to work together is not enough when the fields of scientific expertise are so distinct, for example, between genetics and biophysics. This is why we have prioritised multidisciplinary training on the cochlea in EuroHear. Each year, 30 scientists are invited to participate in courses on cochlear physiology, biophysics, imaging, genetics or other areas. The feedback we have got from the participants has been extremely positive. These are unique occasions for exchanges between young scientists throughout Europe and they can then develop into collaborative projects.

Do you hope to find a treatment for hearing impairment as a result of your research?

Certainly. We are developing several approaches to achieving this. Certain groups are focusing on the regeneration of the damaged cochlea, some on improving the mode of delivery of drugs in the cochlea, and others are committed to the in vitro and in vivo screening of drugs.

This project is set to last five years: is that long enough to achieve your goals?

Research to find the deafness genes and to decipher cochlear biophysical properties and molecular mechanisms is improving, and this can be attributed to the sharing of resources. Thanks to EuroHear, projects which started out as competitive (between European scientists) have now become collaborative. Even so, although the process of creating an authentic European multidisciplinary research area concentrated on the cochlea is now underway, it will take time. It requires a kind of ‘cultural change’ in order for scientists to develop a common language.

Does this mean that you hope to obtain funding under FP7?

Indeed, that is one of our great hopes. There is some concern, that so far, nothing specific has been allocated within FP7 for research related to the sensory organs, except a Coordination Action on hearing impairment and degeneration. Even though Europe has a strong position in this field of research, it cannot be maintained without proper support.

Moreover, we have embarked on an ambitious project that bridges scientific disciplines. The European dimension of the programme provides real ‘added value’ regarding this objective. However, it needs to be extended into FP7 and to be properly reinforced in order to get the full benefits of our initiatives.

I am not saying that the research should be open-ended, but a longer and more flexible timeframe should be envisaged when necessary. At the same time, this flexibility would in no way dampen our enthusiasm for starting up new research fields.