A cure for deafness is a step closer after University of Sheffield scientists used human embryonic stem cells to restore hearing in a common form of deafness.
In research funded by Action on Hearing Loss and the Medical Research Council, researchers from the university developed a method to turn human embryonic stem cells into ear cells needed for hearing – ‘hair cells’ that detect sound and ‘auditory neurons’ that carry information about sound from the ear to the brain. Hearing loss can be caused by damage to either or both type of cell.
Transplantation of the auditory neurons into deaf gerbils, improved their hearing by 46% on average. Improvements were first seen about four weeks after treatment.
As well as proving that stem cells can be used to repair damaged hearing, it is hoped the breakthrough – published in the journal Nature – will lead to new cell-based therapies in the future for some forms of deafness.
Dr Marcelo Rivolta, who led the project, said: ‘We believe this is an important step forward. We now have a method to produce human cochlear sensory cells that we could use to develop new drugs and treatments, and to study the function of genes. And more importantly, we have the proof-of-concept that human stem cells could be used to repair the damaged ear.
‘More research is needed. For instance, we want to understand the long term implications of this treatment and its safety.’
Dr Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research for Action on Hearing Loss, said: ‘The research we have funded at the University of Sheffield is tremendously encouraging and gives us real hope that it will be possible to fix the actual cause of some types of hearing loss in the future. For the millions of people for whom hearing loss is eroding their quality of life, this can’t come soon enough.
‘Today’s cochlear implants provide a sensation of hearing, but they need a healthy auditory nerve to stimulate. By combining these devices with a therapy that repairs the auditory nerve many more people might be able to benefit from cochlear implant technology in the future.’
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