Photo: Marcelo Rivolta, University of Sheffield
Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK have been able to restore the hearing of deaf gerbils using stem cells, they reported yesterday in the journal Nature. If it works in humans, this new therapeutic strategy could improve the lives of people that are hard-of-hearing.There are different types of deafness, but this research focuses on auditory neuropathy. This disorder occurs when sound enters the inner ear normally but the signals created by the ear are lost along the way to the brain. In the ear, sound waves are translated into electrical signals when they vibrate tiny hair cells in your inner ear. Loss or damage of these hair cells and the brain cells they communicate with make hearing difficult.
The animals were deafened in one ear using a drug to destroy their auditory nerves before receiving an injection of around 50,000 human embryonic stem cells, which had previously been treated with chemicals to coax them into becoming ear cells.
Gerbils were used because of they hear a similar sound range as humans. After the treatment the researchers looked for brain signals created in response to sounds to detect improvement: Some gerbils restored up to 90 per cent of the hearing within 10 weeks of the treatment.
BBC News spoke to Dr. Marcelo Rivolta of the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Sheffield and he acknowledges that this is not a complete cure and while someone may still not be able to hear a whisper, they will certainly be able to maintain a conversation in a room.
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