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U.Va. Receives Nearly $3 Million To Study How Cells Used In Hearing, Taste And Smell Develop, Regenerate

May 5, 1999 -- University of Virginia scientists have received nearly $3 million to collaborate on research that may enhance people's ability to smell, taste and hear again after injury.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health has awarded U.Va. a program project grant of approximately $2.8 million to explore the development and regeneration of peripheral sensory receptor cells in the olfactory, auditory and gustatory systems. Peripheral sensory receptor cells are living sensors that send signals to the brain when they are stimulated.

The five-year grant funds research projects in U.Va.'s College of Arts and Sciences and School of Medicine and Washington University's School of Medicine. The grant will support three teams of psychologists, biologists, otolaryngologists and neuroscientists in coordinated investigations that will focus on how sensory cells develop in embryos and regenerate after injury.

The principal investigator in the project is David L. Hill, a psychology professor. Working with him are Peter C. Brunjes, psychology professor and department chair; Robert M. Grainger, a biology professor; and Jeffrey T. Corwin, professor of medicine in the otolaryngology department. Also working with them is Mark E. Warchol, a former U.Va. researcher who is now an assistant professor at Washington University's Central Institute for the Deaf.

The first project team, headed by Grainger and including Brunjes and Corwin, will investigate the molecular and cellular processes that control development of the organs for hearing, balance and smell in embryos. By learning how the sensory structures within the ear and nose develop, the scientists hope to gain an understanding of the problems that lead to congenital defects. They also hope to become knowledgeable about the developmental mechanisms that could provide the basis for new treatments.

The second project, led by Warchol and including Hill, will investigate the role the immune system may play in regenerating sensory hair cells, which convert sound waves into electrical signals that the brain decodes. Mammals have long been thought to lack the capacity to regenerate hearing and balance hair cells that can be injured by such factors as loud noises, infections and high doses of some antibiotics.

The third project, headed by Hill and including Warchol, will examine the regeneration of taste receptor cells after nerve injury. Unlike auditory hair cells, taste cells in mammals can regenerate easily. By understanding the biological mechanisms involved in the regeneration of taste receptor cells, the scientists hope to gain clues that could help them stimulate regeneration in sensory organs that don't normally have that ability. Hill's team will also investigate the role diet plays in the ability to regenerate taste receptor cells and how such cells respond to taste stimuli.

"This grant shows our University-wide strength in neuroscience, which is fully expressed through campus-wide collaboration," said Dr. Robert M. Carey, dean of the School of Medicine.

"It is a terrific chance for some of our best scientists to engage graduate students and post-docs in cutting-edge research," noted Melvyn Leffler, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The National Institutes of Health created the program project grants to encourage collaboration among scientists. The U.Va. and Washington University scientists, who have been working together informally, expect the grant will support a more focused pooling of expertise.

"The grant will serve as the mechanism to make the sum of our research efforts greater than the individual parts," said Hill. "This is a natural fit for us. We have diverse expertise, but a mutual interest in sensory development and regeneration."

The grant will support numerous ways for the scientists to share their work. The U.Va. teams will meet regularly to discuss the progress and direction of each project. An external review committee, composed of scientists from throughout the nation, will advise the researchers on their work during annual meetings. In addition, an internal review committee consisting of experts on the U.Va. faculty will meet periodically to discuss the research and help plan its future direction.

For more information, contact: David Hill, (804) 982-4728 or via dh2t@virginia.edu; Peter Brunjes, (804) 924-0687 or pcb6e@virginia.edu; Jeffrey Corwin at (804) 924-1568 or jtc2k@virginia.edu; or Robert Grainger at (804) 982-5495 or mg9p@virginia.edu.

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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