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May 2016 Inside Indiana Business

“Ear-in-a-Dish” technology developed by a Hoosier researcher is generating so much buzz, one could argue it’s nearly audible—a fitting state for a discovery that focuses on hearing. Dr. Karl Koehler, Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) assistant professor of otolaryngology and head & neck surgery, has discovered a method to “grow” inner ear tissue in a petri dish. Koehler believes the award-winning and well-published technology could make waves in the world of treating hearing loss. The very fragile hair-like cells are susceptible to damage by loud noises or certain drugs, such as chemotherapeutics or certain antibiotics. Koehler says the degeneration of these cells is the cause of hearing loss in about 75 percent of cases. “There’s a big effort underway in the drug discovery world to identify new drugs that might be able to stimulate the growth of these hair cells,” says Koehler. “But it’s very difficult to study these cells, because of how the ear is situated in the body; it’s in a cocoon of bone.” Koehler believes he can give researchers easy access to these hair-like cells by growing them in petri dishes. After developing the method in an animal model, Koehler and colleagues are now looking at a method that will work with human stem cells.

ear in a dishAn Ear-in-a-Dish 3-D floating culture.

“From there, it’s a lot like cooking, we had to figure out the recipe—what different chemical cocktails we can treat them with to guide them into becoming these [inner ear] hair cells in a petri dish. Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to ‘mass produce’ these inner ear structures, so they can be used. There are other companies out there doing similar things with neurons—brain cells. They’re taking these [stem cells] and producing millions and billions of brain cells and selling them to big pharma companies, so they can do diagnostic testing. They’re also doing this with cardiac cells.”

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