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Real life sciences

Researcher's past leads to discovery that could save kids' hearing
by: Courtesy of Manchester University OHSU researcher Peter Steyger needed daily speech therapy as a child (above) after antibiotics caused him to go deaf. Today, Steyger researches how antibiotics cause deafness.

Scientists are different from most of us. Consider the attention span of people content to spend a lifetime of work, day after day, on one, often very narrow field of interest, one variation in cellular response, for instance, or a particular subspecies of vegetation.

Consider also their motivation.

Forty-seven years ago, Peter Steyger lost his hearing. When he was 14 months old, he contracted meningitis, a nightmare disease that strikes seemingly at random, and frequently kills within 24 hours.

Streptomycin, a potent aminoglycoside antibiotic, saved Steyger's life, but caused him to go deaf. Eventually Steyger, who grew up in England, would become a research scientist at Oregon Health and Science University. In December, he published his latest research, which he believes could lead to breakthrough therapeutic changes within five years.

His field? Why aminoglycoside antibiotics cause deafness.

The same antibiotics that caused Steyger to lose his hearing decades ago are still given to most children admitted to hospital neonatal intensive care units today. Steyger says about 600,000 U.S. children each year are admitted to neonatal units, for everything from premature birth to womb infections and meningitis.

Though research is sketchy on exactly what percentage lose their hearing as a result of their antibiotic regimens, Steyger estimates it may run as high as 50,000 people each year.

Steyger, who two weeks ago received word from the National Institutes of Health that he was being given $475,000 to continue his research, thinks that within a few years his work might halt most cases of childhood deafness caused by antibiotics. Physicians will know what doses and how the timing of the doses cause deafness, and will be able to alter their therapies accordingly, possibly administering antidote 'blocker drugs.'

What happened to him won't happen to other children anymore.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Tens of thousands of people lose their hearing each year after antibiotic treatments, but a recent breakthrough by OHSU scientist Peter Steyger could lead to a cure.

A labyrinth of research

Steyger's work is personal, of course, and he feels 'extraordinarily proud' of what he's accomplished so far. And if life were pure poetry we would know that Steyger at an early age decided he would devote his career to the very malady that afflicted him. But that isn't what happened.

Steyger says that 25 years ago he had graduated from college with a degree in zoology and was 'partying in London,' when he saw a want ad for a researcher needed to help study how drugs induce deafness. He says he wasn't thinking long term when he took the job, only that it would be 'cool.'

The cool factor was reinforced when Steyger attended his first international scientific conference.

'I saw how much fun these scientists were having,' he recalls. 'It's research, it's intense, but they were all having so much fun doing it. I said, 'I wouldn't mind doing that.''

At OHSU, Steyger has focused on a very small but critical bit of biological process. Researchers before him had discovered that aminoglycoside antibiotics caused deafness by making their way into the inner ears of patients and killing the sensory hair cells that detect sounds.

Steyger has been focused on the route antibiotics take to enter the inner ear and the hair cells. He developed fluorescent versions of these antibiotics that he followed after administering it to lab animals that, like humans, lose hearing after receiving the drugs. The route, he discovered, is across a specific blood labyrinth barrier in the inner ear. The barrier is a layer of cells lining blood vessels that keep toxins in the blood from entering surrounding cells.

Next up for Steyger is figuring out the molecular mechanisms that allow antibiotics to get across the barrier. Once he finds the transport mechanism, Steyger says, it won't be difficult to figure out what could be used to block the process. In addition, he'd like to correlate the doses children receive with their later degrees of deafness to help guide physicians in the future.

Meanwhile, he's happily accepting congratulations for his discovery, the most important of which is the NIH grant funding his research for three more years.

'It's a very personal validation,' Steyger says. 'One, as a research scientist, but also on an emotional level for me, it was valuable because I'd finally begun to understand my hearing loss.'

'A great trier'

Publication and funding have allowed Steyger to step back a bit and think about the process that brought him to this work.

Steyger says he never felt driven to make discoveries on the cause of his own deafness. Still, he believes researching in a field so personal to him might have made him a better scientist. Often, he says, experiments turn up data that is not what the scientist expects, or wants. A personal stake can help a scientist push through the bad data.

'It makes you more committed,' he says. 'If you don't have a personal stake it makes you think, 'This just too difficult.' '

Thinking about process also brings Steyger to the subject of his mother back in Stockport, who he credits for making his scientific research possible.

Steyger's Facebook page features a photograph from 1968 showing his mother and her speech therapist coach during his daily speech training. The blond-haired Steyger is wearing headphones and playing with a model train as the adults teach him to assign words to objects. And he's smiling.

Steyger's childhood was spent learning vocabulary words that most of us pick up simply by listening. His mother also taught him to lip read, but forbid him to use sign language, afraid he would get lazy and not learn how to speak. Today he uses a combination of lip reading and hearing, having received a cochlear implant five years ago.

Steyger's mother, Peggy Steyger, knows how much credit she deserves for whatever achievements her son attains. From the day someone clapped hands behind his crib and noticed that her son didn't respond, she devoted part of every afternoon to assisting Peter with his speech therapy.

She says local authorities wanted to send Peter to a residential school for the deaf, but she and her husband refused.

For her part, a proud Peggy Steyger says she never knew what field Peter would study and that her son has 'succeeded beyond anything I could have hoped for.'

Not that she's surprised at Peter's success.

'He was always a great trier,' she says.

And Peter Steyger says he's more than happy to share the limelight with his mom.

'She actually said to me, 'It's nice to be getting recognition after all this time,' ' he says.


What drives a man or woman to spend a career studying one bit of science? We asked Portland scientists how they chose their fields, and found a few were the result of serendipitous events:

Alex Ruzicka, Portland State University geologist:

I grew up with the Apollo program; my first drawings were of rockets launching. The moon landings were a great adventure and I thought it amazing that one could study rocks collected from their surface and learn about how the moon formed. Plate tectonics was the new accepted theory for Earth (although some of my college textbooks weren't sure), and I found it incredible that a planet could operate this way. Now I study meteorites because it is the one thing that best combines my interests in space and rocks.

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Above, courtesy of George Steinmetz

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Kenneth Clifton, Lewis and Clark College biologist:

When I was 10, my geologist father spent two months living next to a coral reef in an underwater habitat with three other scientists. He sent me letters stamped with 'Dispatched from the ocean floor' describing the fish swimming past his window. I've been studying coral reefs ever since.

Kellar Autumn, Lewis and Clark biologist:

I became interested in gecko adhesion 14 years ago during a vacation in Hawaii. I was in a little hotel near Kealakekua Bay and, while I was in bed, a huge spider crawled out across the ceiling. I'm a bit arachnophobic, so I was trying to work up the courage to deal with the spider when a tiny gecko came out on the ceiling too. The gecko and the spider had an upside-down battle right there above me. The gecko won easily and knocked the spider off (fortunately not on me!). This made me wonder how the gecko could run so easily on the ceiling, and why it was so much better at sticking than the spider. This moment of curiosity inspired our study of the force generated by a single microscopic gecko foot hair and led to the invention of the adhesive nanostructure.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • It wasn't what she studied but where she sat in the library that set Christina Hulbe on the path toward becoming a geologist.

Christina Hulbe, PSU geologist:

When I was an engineering undergrad, I used to study at a table way back in the stacks in the college library. The table was against a wall along an aisle, right across from GB2401.J68, the Journal of Glaciology. When I needed a break from working on a problem or studying for an exam, I'd pull a bound set of issues off the shelf and try to read the papers. They turned out to be about really interesting applications of physics, with ice and mountains - and I was hooked. It would require years of additional study before I could understand a lot of what was written in those articles but now I write papers published there and I'm an officer in of the International Glaciological Society, publisher of the Journal.

Pamela Yeh, Portland State University biologist:

I have loved animals since I was very little, but it wasn't until I was 13 when I read about being a wildlife biologist, at the end of a science textbook that was highlighting different scientific careers, that I realized you could do that for a living. Evolution is an integral part of studying organisms in the wild, which is how I ended up being an evolutionary biologist.

Melanie Fried-Oken, OHSU principal investigator of the Brain Computer Interface, a computer program that helps paralyzed people communicate through brain waves:

I met Jimmy Viggiano in Boston in 1979, when we both worked in a rehabilitation engineering center that was making some of the first talking machines for people with disabilities. Jimmy had grown up at an institution for the mentally retarded in Massachusetts even though he had no intellectual problems. He just had cerebral palsy and could not control his muscles so he had no way to speak. As we worked together, I knew that I would devote my career to helping people who had complex communication needs find ways to speak up and advocate for themselves.

Tami Lasseter Clare, Portland State University chemist:

Growing up in a family that loved to travel to far-flung countries, I was imbued with a sense of intrigue and respect for foreign cultures. After graduating with a doctorate in materials chemistry, I sought to unite my interest in cultural heritage and materials chemistry. I recently founded the Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation at PSU.

Peter Kennedy, Lewis and Clark College biologist:

When I visited the cloud forests of Panama 15 years ago, I was amazed by how similar the mushrooms were to the ones I had grown up seeing in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I read more and found that both forests contained specialized fungi that were symbiotically associated with tree roots. Ever since, I have been studying the ecological role this symbiosis plays in forests worldwide.

Lisa Zurk, director of PSU's Northwest Electromagnetics and Acoustics Research Lab:

I never did take apart a radio when I was a child (which is supposedly the story of a 'real engineer'). I was told women don't become engineers, and that it was supposed to be a very difficult career - so perhaps I am just stubborn. Once I became a scientist, I found the idea of using waves (electromagnetic and acoustic) for sensing applications provided a way to help us understand the world around us, from space to the deepest areas of the sea. And I continue to mentor women in science and engineering, hoping they don't find it as unfriendly as I did (although the statistics of women in science don't seem to support this).

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A child's curiosity about what lies beneath influenced biologist Angela Strecker.

Angela Strecker, Portland State University biologist:

I spent a great deal of time camping, boating and staring at water when I was growing up, and I was always fascinated by what lurked beneath the surface of the water. Why was the lake water clear some of the time, but thick green other times? Why do minnows swim as a pack? Why are fish abundant at some times and not others? Currently, my research focuses on the human and natural variables that influence fish, invertebrate, and algal communities in freshwater ecosystems.'

Luis A. Ruedas, PSU biologist:

When I was an undergrad, I was mortally shy and wanted to be away from people insofar as possible. The only career that I felt would enable me to stay away from people was biology. In looking further, it seemed a career in field biology studying animals such as wolves or bear would be the best. As it happened, my chosen path did not end up with those study organisms: I had a highly influential professor as an undergrad who studied rodents and rabbits and - without necessarily wanting to - I found myself studying those smaller organisms (and many more!). Later on, I realized that I would have to face people, so still an undergrad, I ran for class office so that I would be forced into public speaking. Now I have one of the best jobs a scientist can have: field work in the summers, lecturing young (hopefully open) minds and lab work in winters.

Julio C. de Paula, Lewis and Clark chemist:

As a child growing up in Brazil, I was first inspired to become a scientist by the Apollo moon missions. I was so happy that Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface on my 10th birthday! A few years later, the oil crisis of 1973 affected Brazil strongly, and I began to wonder about alternative energy sources. By the time my family immigrated to America in 1976, I was convinced that I wanted to be a scientist, and a chemist in particular. My early interest in energy took me from studies of plant photosynthesis to attempts to mimic photosynthesis in systems that can be made in the laboratory and become the basis for efficient solar energy conversion devices.

Hannah Chong, Legacy Clinic Services Specialist, Randall Children's Hospital:

I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 15 and was treated at Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel's Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Program. Today, I serve as a clinic services specialist there and work with Dr. Janice Olson, one of the oncologists who treated me, in the unit where children receive cancer treatment. I have also become a certified child life specialist and help children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Jim Pankow, PSU chemist and environmental engineer:

As a kid I was really interested in chemistry. This was partly due no doubt to the fact that my uncle, Howard Cordts, was a chemist with Dow Chemical. When I was 6, I would go to the library and check out books on chemistry, sit at my dad's little Royal portable typewriter, and make tables of the elements, with the names and symbols and atomic weights.

JoAnn Vance, nursing administrator at the Center for Medically Fragile Children at Providence Child Center:

My father worked for the Hood River ambulance and fire department. I watched the excitement and energy he gave to this career and wanted the same. I had a medically fragile child who died at the age of 10. She was treated at (Legacy) Emanuel Children's Hospital a month after I graduated from nursing school. Through an agency assignment I went to work at Emanuel's inpatient unit after her passing. I knew the within the first hours of working my shift that pediatrics was my calling.

Bob Butler, University of Portland authority on earthquakes who keeps a seismograph in his basement:

I remember being confused by the Rocky Mountains because those mountains do not look anything like the Cascade volcanoes. My uncle, a professor of physics at WSU, told me about the idea of continental drift and mountains forming when continents collide. My uncle also told me about the 1957 International Geophysical Year and I recall reading articles about how geophysicists use physics and math to study the Earth. Then Sputnik was launched and every kid like me who was good at math and science was told to become a scientist or an engineer so we could save the nation from the communists. So I became a geophysicist specializing in research on paleomagnetism, geochronology, and tectonics.