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NIDCD Director James Battey's 2015 Testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations


Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request

Statement for the Record
Senate Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations

James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., PhD.
Director, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

April 2, 2014

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to present the President’s Budget request for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The fiscal year (FY) 2015 NIDCD budget of $403,933,000 includes an increase of $440,000 over the comparable FY 2014 appropriation of $403,493,000.

NIDCD conducts and supports research, and research training in the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language. Last year, NIDCD was proud to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. Over the past twenty-five years, NIDCD-supported scientists have made astonishing advances in the NIDCD’s mission areas. Numerous discoveries have expanded our knowledge base and led to improved diagnosis, treatment, and technology for people with communication disorders. For example, the cochlear implant, one of the most groundbreaking biomedical achievements of the past 30 years, was developed as the result of NIDCD funding. Two researchers involved in this effort were the recipients of the 2013 Lasker-DeBakey Award in Clinical Medical Research for their work in the development of cochlear implants. Also, NIDCD’s research efforts provided the evidence base for statewide newborn and infant hearing screen programs, resulting in the screening of nearly all infants born in U.S. hospitals for hearing loss as of 2010, up from as few as one-tenth infants screened in 1993.

Our Institute focuses on disorders that affect the quality of life of millions of Americans in their homes, workplaces, and communities. The physical, emotional, and economic impact for individuals living with these disorders is tremendous. NIDCD continues to make investments to improve our understanding of the underlying causes of communication disorders, as well as their treatment and prevention. It is a time of extraordinary promise, and I am excited to be able to share with you some of NIDCD’s ongoing research and planned activities on communication disorders.

New Therapy to Prevent Drug-Induced Hearing Loss

NIDCD scientists on the NIH campus are currently conducting research aimed at understanding and preventing hearing loss. The lab is studying the specialized sensory cells in the inner ear, called hair cells. These cells convert sound into neural signals that are transmitted to the brain. The delicate hair cells can die as a result of exposure to a variety of stresses, including aging, noise trauma, genetic mutations, and some therapeutic drugs that a person might receive as treatment (called “ototoxic” drugs). These drugs are beneficial in terms of treating diseases such as infections or cancer, but they also have the potential side effect of causing hearing loss because the drugs are toxic to hair cells in the inner ear. When human hair cells die, they are not replaced, so the hair cells you are born with are all you get for the rest of your life. If someone loses enough hair cells, the result is permanent hearing loss. The NIDCD scientists are conducting basic science studies aimed at understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie hair cell stress and death. They are also conducting translational studies aimed at developing clinical therapies to reduce hearing loss in patients receiving ototoxic drugs. The scientists are developing a clinical trial to evaluate a novel treatment method to prevent hair cell death and hearing loss in individuals who need life-saving treatments that cause hearing loss—such as a widely-used antibiotic known as an aminoglycoside or anti-cancer drugs such as cisplatin.

Clinical Trials for Dizziness and Ringing in the Ears

Treatment options for many communication disorders are limited or nonexistent. In response, NIDCD has made a concerted effort to improve and expand its clinical trials program. The NIDCD is funding three clinical trials to test safety and efficacy of new devices to treat balance disorders (such as dizziness) and tinnitus (a persistent buzzing or ringing sound in the ears in the absence of any real sound). Similar to the cochlear implant that restores a sense of hearing to individuals who are severe to profoundly hearing impaired, the vestibular prosthesis aims to restore a sense of balance to persons who suffer chronic disorientation in space and related balance problems.

NIDCD is also supporting two clinical trials to test two devices for tinnitus that take advantage of the brain's ability to reconfigure itself (neuroplasticity). Scientists hope that these devices can change how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, in order to alleviate awareness of and negative response to tinnitus. One device pairs auditory tones with stimulation of the vagus nerve, a large nerve that runs from the head and neck to the abdomen. When stimulated, the vagus nerve releases acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and other chemicals that encourage neuroplasticity to help the human brain decide what is worthy of attention and what is not, in an attempt to “re-train” the neurons to fire more appropriately. The other device is an electrode placed deep within brain auditory centers to block negative reactions to the phantom sounds, so the person can ignore them. NIDCD hopes these and other clinical trials will lead to new effective treatments for balance problems and tinnitus.

Genes Influence Our Ability to Detect Odors

Our ability to smell a particular odor can have important impacts on our health, including what foods we choose to eat and whether we detect and avoid spoiled food or a poisonous chemical. We know that people show a lot of variability in their ability to detect specific odors, but we do not fully understand the role of genes in that variability. Now, NIDCD-supported scientists have identified genes whose pattern of inheritance determines the ability of a person to detect a particular grassy odor, called “cis-3-hexen-1-ol” (C3HEX). C3HEX is a found in a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, including raspberries and broccoli. The scientists identified several forms of a particular odorant receptor gene in the people they tested. The form of the gene that a person inherited determined the minimum concentration needed for that person to detect, or smell, C3HEX. Some people were able to smell C3HEX at low concentrations, others required a greater concentration, and still others required a very high concentration of C3HEX in order to smell it. The scientists now plan to determine how much the ability to smell that odor influences flavor perception, and decisions to eat foods that give off that odor. This research may help us understand why a person likes or dislikes particular nutritious foods, information that could help develop ways to improve food choices and fight obesity and related diseases like type 2 diabetes.

New Advances on Restoring Hearing

Our ability to hear relies on sensory hair cells in the inner ear. The “hairs” on these specialized cells convert sound vibrations into electrical signals, which travel to the brain by way of the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged—by disease, injury, or aging—a person experiences hearing loss, and mammals can’t regenerate hair cells on their own. Contrary to earlier beliefs, in a recent NIDCD-supported study, scientists have revealed that the supporting cells for hair cells can turn into hair cells in newborn mice, at very low levels. 

The scientists knew that the cells below the hair cells, the supporting cells, can become hair cells when an important pathway for cell communication is blocked. What the scientists discovered in this study was that only supporting cells that expressed a protein called Lgr5 turned into hair cells. Knowledge about these Lgr5 supporting cells now provides scientists with a target cell population to study which could lead to new ways to induce supporting cells to become hair cells in adults. 

If these findings can be applied to older animals, they may lead the way to stimulating hair cell regeneration in older adults. The NIDCD hopes this advance will translate to regenerative therapies in the inner ear of humans. Such therapies provide hope of future treatments for those who have lost hearing due to aging, injury, or noise exposure, including military veterans returning from active duty.

James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

James F. Battey, Jr., received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1974. He received an M.D. and Ph.D. in biophysics from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1980. After receiving training in pediatrics, he pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in genetics at Harvard Medical School under the mentorship of Dr. Philip Leder. Since completing his postdoctoral fellowship in 1983, he has held a variety of positions at the National Institutes of Health, serving in the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Currently, he is the director of the NIDCD, and also serves as the vice chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force. He has been married for 31 years to Frances Battey, and has two sons, Michael and JJ.

Last Updated Date: 
August 14, 2014