Tackling Science in a Struggling Economy: An Interview with Ana Belén Elgoyhen

Ana Belén Elgoyhen

Ana Belén Elgoyhen works at the Argentine National Research Council. As an accomplished researcher she tackles the challenges of a wide-spread global health issue, namely hearing loss. We asked her about her scientific work in the struggling economy of Argentina.

At Global Female Leaders 2017, Ana will tell us more in her Spotlight Session on Loud Youth, Silent Adulthood: Hearing Challenges for an Aging Population.

Mrs. Elgoyhen, you are a researcher at Argentina’s National Research Council, as well as a Professor at the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine and Pharma. Does working in science in a country that has been accompanied by economic struggles for so long go along with any special difficulties?

Working in a country like Argentina that has gone through various economic struggles and that doesn’t see science as a top priority is a real challenge. You have to be passionate about exploring nature´s unknowns to do science in our country. The obstacles are manifold including bad salaries, low research budgets and import restrictions in an area where all reagents and equipments come from abroad. Moreover, you are far away from the great USA or European Science centres, so maintaining strong collaborations abroad is required. In spite of all these restrictions, there are very good scientists in Argentina and I guess that our Latin passion and excellent training in human resources is a key for success. In addition, most of us who have succeeded to provide important scientific advances have had steady support from USA or European Institutions, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

You have to be passionate about exploring nature´s unknowns to do science in our country.”

Your research focusses on the molecular basis of hearing and causes of hearing loss. Could you explain to us and our readers which are the most important goals of your work?

Our main research goal is to understand how the inner ear works on the molecular level, that is, what molecules are involved in the process of transforming differences in sound pressure level into electrical signals that the brain can understand. In particular, we have discovered the molecules involved in a system (the efferent system) by which the brain modulates the way we hear. In addition, this efferent system protects the inner ear from damage produced by exposure to loud sounds. At a clinical level, we do molecular diagnostics and genetic counselling in patients who have hearing defects, since 50 percent of hearing impairments have a genetic origin.

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It is considered that any sound above 85 dB is damaging. The sound of a vacuum cleaner reaches about 80 dB and the crowd noise in a basketball game can reach over 100.”

Hearing loss is one of the major global health issues. According to the World Health Organisation over 350 million people suffer from disabling hearing loss, and most of them live in low- and middle-income countries. Do you think there are ways for us to combat this problem and reduce this staggering number in the future?

Hearing loss is a global burden not only to the persons who suffer from it but also for the health system.

It increases with age:

  • 1.4 : 100 in children from 5 to 14 years,
  • 11 : 100 over 15 years,
  • And reaching 42% of the population at 75.

Moreover, hearing loss is most often accompanied with tinnitus, a disabling condition for some who suffer from it, in which a phantom sound is constantly perceived.

Although it is known that 50 percent of the underlying causes of hearing loss are genetic in origin, one could say that exposure to loud sound is the main contributor to the other half. The sensory cells of our inner ear are very few and fragile and they don’t regenerate once they have been damaged. The main insult to these cells is the loud sound to which we are all exposed to in big cities. Damage is cumulative and depends on sound intensity and time of exposure. It is considered that any sound above 85 dB is damaging. The sound of a vacuum cleaner reaches about 80 dB and the crowd noise in a basketball game can reach over 100. Since there is currently no treatment to repair sensory cells that have been damaged by loud sound, it is important for people to protect themselves from such damage. How can you protect yourself? Turn down the volume if possible, move away from the loud sound source if possible and if unavoidable use ear protection.

Is the CRISPR/CAS9 technology a means to repair genetic hearing loss? What is your stance on the ethical implications concerning genome editing of human embryos? 

CRISPR/Cas9 has risen as a new revolutionary technique, easy to handle and low cost for genome editing, with the possibility of multiple purposes. Since its description, it has exponentially accelerated the genome editing field. Genome editing has the potential to cure diseases by disrupting disease-causing genes, correcting disease-causing gene mutations or inserting new genes with protective functions. The bioethics behind CRISPR/Cas9 human genome editing is a great matter of debate and there is a long way to go before it should be used in humans.

Thank you so much for the interview! We look forward to seeing you at Global Female Leaders 2017.

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