November 2021

Hertzano Details Research on Hearing Loss

November 3, 2021    |  

Ronna P. Hertzano, MD, PhD, is dedicated to developing therapeutics to prevent and treat genetic and acquired hearing loss. The task is daunting, with the World Health Organization reporting in March that 430 million people around the world have disabling hearing loss and that the number could grow to 700 million by 2050.

“Hearing loss results from a variety of conditions, with noise and genetics playing major roles,” Hertzano, professor, Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), said during her University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) Researcher of the Year Presentation on Oct. 27. “But our treatments for hearing loss today are solely based on one thing: how much hearing loss we have. If we have a little hearing loss — and it doesn’t matter if it’s because of aging, a genetic mutation, or an ototoxic drug — we’re going to use a hearing aid. And if hearing aids are not enough to restore our capacity to communicate with each other, then we’re going to use a cochlear implant.

“So, there are two things we’d like to accomplish in our research. We would like to figure out ways to regenerate the hair cells — the sensory cells of the auditory system. And we would like to find ways to protect the ears from noise damage and aging. How wonderful would it be if the hearing that we have when we are 70 years old could be the same as it was when we were 20?”

Hertzano, who holds a secondary appointment in UMSOM’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and is an affiliate faculty member of UMSOM’s Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS), offered details about the ear, hearing loss, and her lab’s research and collaborations during a 40-minute presentation titled “From Ear to gEAR: A Multi-Omic Path Toward Therapeutics,” though she admitted that a better title might have been “The Power of Collaboration and the Benefits of a Collaborative Research Community.”

UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, spoke about Hertzano’s collaborative nature during his introduction in which he described her as “a surgeon and a scientist with many years of serious and distinguished research who is one of the country’s leading scholars and experts in the field of hearing loss.”

“Her clinical work focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of disease of the ear, with an emphasis on hearing restoration,” said Reece, who also is the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor, UMSOM, and executive director for medical affairs, UMB. “Her goal as a researcher is to make significant contributions toward the treatment of the same conditions she sees in her patients. Her research work is groundbreaking, which is evident by her active grant portfolio, which is at $11 million in extramural funds as of today.

“I often quote the African proverb that states, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ That's Dr. Hertzano. She goes with others, and, as a consequence, she goes far,” he added. “She regularly and naturally collaborates across the School of Medicine with thoughtfulness, generosity, and a supportive nature.”

The Researcher of the Year presentation was a hybrid event this year, with Hertzano’s lecture being livestreamed while she spoke in front of a small audience at Health Sciences Research Facility III that included Reece, UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, members of her family, and colleagues. The annual event is part of UMB’s Founders Week celebration.

Using a series of PowerPoint slides, Hertzano described how her lab decided to study the coordinated regulation of gene expression in the cell types of the inner ear to understand the molecular programs that drive inner-ear development and function. Part of the work involves participation in the Hearing Restoration Project, an international consortium dedicated to advancing hair cell regeneration in the human ear that is funded by the Hearing Health Foundation.

On another front, Hertzano and collaborators set out to build a map of the molecular changes that happen after noise exposure with the goal of identifying drugs that could be repurposed to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. The top candidate drug was found to be metformin, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 to treat diabetes.

“It’s an old drug, it’s cheap, it’s not patented, it’s well-tolerated, and for people without diabetes, it does not cause hypoglycemia,” said Hertzano, who added that one of the resident physicians in her department, Catherine Kennedy, MD, is taking the lead in testing the drug on mice. “This study is ongoing, and we need to repeat it multiple times and extend it to female mice, but the results so far show great promise.”

Hertzano also touched on the gEAR (gene Expression Analysis Resource,, an online tool developed with IGS colleagues that could more quickly advance medical discoveries designed to reverse progressive hearing loss. The tool provides easy access to genetic and other molecular data from hundreds of technical research studies involving hearing function and the ear, allows researchers to rapidly access data, and provides easily interpreted visualizations of datasets.

In closing, Hertzano thanked Reece and the current and former chairs of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery — Rodney Taylor, MD, MSPH, and Scott Strome, MD, respectively — for their support of her work, as well as Claire Fraser, PhD, the Dean’s Endowed Professor, UMSOM, and executive director of IGS.