Lisa L. Cunningham, Ph.D., Named NIDCD Scientific Director

Exploring Hearing Loss

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) has named Lisa L. Cunningham scientific director and director of the Division of Intramural Research. In this role, she will oversee the intramural research programs, which have roughly 165 employees working in 13 labs. She assumed her new position on April 11, 2021.

“She is passionate about science,” said NIDCD Director Debara L. Tucci. “Her extensive experience in basic, translational, and clinical research will be critical to advancing our shared vision of propelling new discoveries to the clinic and reducing the disease burden in our mission areas.”

Cunningham has been in NIDCD’s intramural program since 2011, becoming chief of the Section on Sensory Biology in 2014. The intramural program focuses on research on human communication disorders, with a primary interest in hearing and balance. The division’s scientists have made great strides in deepening our understanding of inner-ear development and function, as well as how genetic variations and factors such as ototoxic drug exposure affect hearing and balance.

“I am honored that Dr. Tucci has entrusted me with this position,” said Cunningham. “The Division of Intramural Research has truly outstanding scientists, and the intellectually rich and collaborative culture of the division has positioned us to make important discoveries and to generate resources that will benefit the entire field. I am looking forward to building on the existing high quality of scientific research by recruiting a diverse faculty of researchers and facilitating the development of innovative therapies.”

LIsa Cunningham

New NIDCD Scientific Director Lisa Cunningham.

Cunningham originally trained as a clinical audiologist, having received her B.A. and M.A. in audiology from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Knoxville, Tennessee) and completed a clinical fellowship in audiology at Indiana University Medical Center (Indianapolis). Although she had initially planned for a career as a clinician, an auditory study she conducted as a Master’s student, with her classmates serving as research subjects, abruptly changed her path. “We had created a tiny piece of new knowledge, and I was hooked,” said Cunningham. “I knew then that research was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

She went on to receive a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Virginia) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington (Seattle). In 2004, she joined the faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina (Charleston, South Carolina) as an assistant professor. Her lab at MUSC conducted studies on heat shock protein (HSP)-mediated protection against ototoxic drug-induced hearing loss and the death of sensory hair cells (inner-ear cells that are fundamental to hearing and balance functions.)

Since coming to NIH in 2011, Cunningham has continued her work exploring the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the survival or death of hair cells. An area of particular focus is hearing loss caused by medications, such as certain antibiotics or cancer drugs.

She and her team recently found evidence suggesting that the cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin can reduce hearing loss in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy with cisplatin, which is toxic to hair cells and causes hearing loss in about 50% of treated patients. The data suggest that the concurrent use of atorvastatin during cisplatin-based chemotherapy does not affect the therapeutic efficacy of cisplatin. (J Clin Invest 131:e142616, 2021; DOI:10.1172/JCI142616). Her team is pursuing this finding through a phase 3 trial, the first interventional trial for hearing loss to be conducted within the division.

Among Cunningham’s numerous honors and awards are two NIDCD Director’s Awards and an NIH Bench-to-Bedside Award. She has also been recognized for her commitment to mentoring, having been voted three times one of the top 10 teachers in the Medical University of South Carolina College of Graduate Studies, and having received an NIH Graduate Partnerships Program Outstanding Mentor Award.

Cunningham has been an active member of the scientific community, both within and outside NIH. As academic dean of the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program, she has helped to advance NIH on the world stage and to launch the biomedical research careers of a group of talented graduate students. She also serves as an elected member of the Council of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, where she has worked on diversity programming and cultural awareness with the goal of ensuring that the field as a whole is inclusive, diverse, and welcoming.