Protecting auditory nerve cells using gene therapy and cell implants

Principal Investigator (GPRWMF) – Dr Lisa Gillespie

Principal Investigator (NHMRC) – Prof Robert Shepherd


Producing neurotrophins to help keep the auditory neurons and nerves alive

Schwann cells (cells which support neurons), have been genetically modified to over-express the neurotrophin NT-3 (in green).

The purpose of this work is to develop a technique to deliver nerve survival factors, known as neurotrophins, to the deaf cochlea (inner ear) that will be safe to use in bionic ear recipients. This is being done by using gene therapy and cell implantation.

Our research

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Alginate capsules in vitro

Alginate capsules containing BDNF-Schwann cells

We are genetically modifying cells so that they will secret neurotrophins, and essentially act like “neurotrophin factories”. We will then make small capsules which will contain our cells, and will implant these capsules into the cochlea with a cochlear implant to provide survival signals to the auditory neurons.

The use of genetically modified cells enables us to manipulate variables such as the cell type used and the neurotrophin expressed, and also maximise the neurotrophin secretion by the cells. We can thus tailor the cell implants to suit the needs of us, and others.

We hypothesise that these techniques will help keep the auditory neurons and nerves alive, and will improve the quality of the sounds that bionic ear recipients can hear.


  • Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Fund
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
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