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Lisa L. Cunningham, Ph.D.

Photo of Dr. Cunningham

Section on Sensory Cell Biology

Porter Neuroscience Research Center
35A Convent Drive, Room 1D971
Bethesda, MD 20892-3729 For U.S. Postal Service
Bethesda, MD 20814 For other carriers (FedEx, UPS, etc.)
Phone: 301-443-2766

Dr. Cunningham received a B.A. and M.A. in Audiology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She completed a Clinical Fellowship in Audiology at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. She received a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Virginia and then completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Auditory Neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Cunningham started her own lab at the Medical University of South Carolina in 2004 where she conducted the initial studies on heat shock protein (HSP)-mediated protection against ototoxic drug-induced hearing loss and hair cell death. This work was funded by a Research Project Grant (R01) from the NIDCD. Dr. Cunningham moved to the NIDCD's Section on Sensory Cell Biology in 2011.

Diagram of cross-section of the
Diagram of cross-section of the
utricle showing hair cells and
supporting cells

Supporting cells (labeled red with
Supporting cells (labeled red with
anti-Sox2) infected with adenovirus
driving GFP expression

Mouse utricles with hair cells labeled with
Mouse utricles with hair cells labeled with
antibodies against calmodulin (green) and
calbindin (red). Left panel is a control utricle
showing type I (red) and type II (green) hair cells.
Right panel is a utricle treated with cisplatin,
which is toxic to hair cells. At this low
cisplatin concentration, type I hair cells are
killed while type II hair cells survive.

Section on Sensory Cell Biology

Research Statement

Our research is focused on the mechanosensory hair cells that are the receptor cells of hearing and balance. Specifically, we are interested in the molecular signals that regulate the survival, homeostasis, and death of these cells. Mammalian hair cells are terminally differentiated and are not regenerated when they are lost. Therefore, human hair cells must survive and function for up to a century (or longer) in order to transduce sound and head movement into the neural signals of hearing and balance throughout a normal lifespan. During this lengthy period of time, the hair cell may encounter multiple potentially-toxic stimuli, including exposure to excessive sound and/or exposure to therapeutic drugs with ototoxic side effects. Hair cells must be able to respond rapidly and effectively to these and other potentially-cytotoxic stimuli if they are to survive and continue to function.

We are examining the signals that mediate the survival and death of hair cells under stress. We are currently studying the role of stress-induced proteins called heat shock proteins (HSPs) in protecting against hair cell death. Our studies use an in vitro preparation of the adult mouse utricle (a balance organ in the inner ear), which is the best-characterized model system for in vitro studies of mature mammalian hair cells. Using this preparation, we have shown that HSPs inhibit hair cell death caused by both major classes of ototoxic drugs, namely the aminoglycoside antibiotics and the antineoplastic agent cisplatin. In addition, we have shown that mice that constitutively express HSP70 are resistant to hearing loss and cochlear hair cell death caused by systemic aminoglycoside exposure. Our studies indicate that HSP induction is a critical stress response in the inner ear that can promote survival of hair cells exposed to major stressors.

Currently our studies are broadly divided into two groups: 1) those aimed at understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying the protective effects of HSPs and 2) those aimed at translating our findings into clinical therapies to prevent hearing loss caused by exposure to ototoxic drugs.

Video: Dissection of Adult Mouse Utricle and Adenovirus-Mediated Supporting Cell Infection

Click the start button above to see a video demonstration of the mouse utricle dissection and infection of supporting cells using adenovirus.

Lab Personnel

Andrew Breglio, Clinical Fellow, 301-827-4172 (Send email)
Lindsey May, Biologist, 301-827-4197 (Send email)
Katharine Fernandez, AuD., Ph.D., Research Scientist, 540-908-7989 (Send email
Shimon Francis, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, 301-443-2766 (Send email)
Elyssa Monzack, Ph.D., Postdoc Fellow IRTA, 301-827-4184 (Send email)
Aaron Rusheen, BS, Postbaccalaureate Fellow, 301-827-9661 (Send email)


DC Cherry Blossom Festival 2015. L-R: Shimon Francis, Elyssa Monzack, Lisa Cunningham, Lindsey May, Aaron Rusheen

Lab Personnel2015 lab group. L-R: Aaron Rusheen, Soumen Roy, Elyssa Monzack, Andrew Breglio, Lisa Cunningham, Jasmine Saleh, Lindsey May

Selected Publications