“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.

Throughout the inner ear are hair-like cells; when activated by sound waves, their movements are interpreted by the brain as sound. These very fragile 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 IUSM Professor of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery Dr. Eri Hashino are now working on a method that will work with human stem cells.

“From there, it’s a lot like cooking,” says Koehler. “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.”

Having inner ear cells readily available means researchers can easily test potential drugs to treat hearing loss and find new compounds that could regenerate the hair cells.

“Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to ‘mass produce’ these inner ear structures, so they can be used,” says Koehler. “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.”

Koehler recently partnered with Indianapolis-based Monon Bioventures to focus on the business side of his Ear-in-a-Dish and the intricacies of bringing it to the market. Monon Bioventures Founder and Chief Executive Officer Joe Trebley says the team is currently working on the “scalability and robustness” of the concept. He anticipates a corporate partnership or small business grants could help fund further development.

“The initial step is to create a model from these stem cell lines and be able to create hundreds, thousands, millions of these miniature ear models,” says Trebley. “You have to be able to make a lot of [Ears-in-a-Dish] and be confident the variability between each one is minimal.”

And although Trebley says “it’s a long way off,” the vision exists to use a patient’s stem cells to create missing parts of the inner ear. It’s that kind of forward thinking that led TechPoint to name Ear-in-a-Dish the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year, a new category in the Mira Awards lineup in Indiana.

“Life has its own operating system too, and we’re trying to hack that system,” says Trebley. “While that might not be Silicon-based, there are a lot of similarities to the work we’re doing—understanding the coding of life and being able to manipulate that code to improve lives. That’s an extraordinary discovery.”

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Koehler describes the unique appearance of the Ear-in-a-Dish.

Koehler says he’s anxious to move Ear-in-a-Dish from the bench to the bedside.

Trebley says Monon Bioventures is “enthusiastic” to be working with Koehler, who shows “a lot of promise.”