Published October 12, 2020
A neuroscientist works to create an artificial human cochlea to combat hearing loss.
Kelvin Kwan is an associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience whose research focuses on alleviating and curing progressive hearing loss. He is the inaugural holder of the Duncan and Nancy MacMillan Faculty Development Chair in the Life Sciences.
Kwan and his team are making advances in stem cell replacement therapies associated with hearing loss, a neurodegenerative disorder that typically impacts a person over the course of many years. Approximately 17 percent of people in the United States—about 42 million—have been diagnosed with hearing loss, and that number is likely to increase due to exposure to loud sound levels from phones and other devices.
Hearing loss is often the result of the death of delicate hair cells in the ear, which are part of the neural system that transmits sound to the brain. If these hair cells are not functioning, standard methods of improving hearing—such as hearing aids and cochlear implants—won’t improve a person’s hearing. Kwan is designing regenerative cell therapies to aid people who have suffered inner ear damage.
He also is working to develop a human cochlea—a cavity in the inner ear that contains a receptor organ for hearing—on a chip, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering department and Rutgers’ biomedical engineering department. This chip, which has the potential to be used as an auditory prosthesis, is derived from cells that are cultured on flexible polymer that mimics cochlear sensory tissue. “The inner ear stem cell line that we have created has been distributed worldwide for other researchers to use,” Kwan said.
Kwan holds a doctorate from Harvard University and completed his postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. His lab has generated enough preliminary data to earn a five-year grant from the National Institute of Deafness and Communicative Diseases. He has been invited to present his lab’s work at international conferences and local symposia.
The Duncan and Nancy MacMillan Faculty Development Chair in the Life Sciences was established by Duncan and Nancy MacMillan to support a promising early-career faculty member in the life sciences.
In the Professor’s Own Words
Why did you choose to focus your work on hearing?
I am interested in how sensory systems convert physical stimuli, such as sound, into neural signals. One of the least understood sensory systems is hearing. Sensory hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons are responsible for detecting and transmitting sound information to the brain. However, the molecular machinery required for their cellular function is largely unknown.
What made you decide to come to Rutgers?
The opportunity to mentor undergraduates and graduate students was one of the main reasons for my decision in coming to Rutgers. Another major reason was the strong community of molecular and cellular neuroscientists in the area for potential collaborations.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
The possibility of performing cutting-edge research that may one day be used for regenerative medicine is one of the most exciting parts of my research. A major goal in the lab is to regenerate sensory hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons from inner ear stem cells.
How would you describe your students?
The students in my lab are inquisitive and eager to learn. They provide a fresh perspective to different hurdles that must be overcome in research. The presence of students in the lab adds an additional level of liveliness and enthusiasm in an already vibrant research environment.
This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.