|Ear hair cell derived from embryonic stem cells | Stefan Heller, Stanford University School of Medicine|
This week researchers at the University of Sheffield in England used cells derived from embryonic stem cells to help restore hearing in gerbils. One note: the scientists weren’t driven by a concern for gerbil hearing. It just so happens that the rodents hear in roughly the same sound range as us humans and so their ears are a good model for human hearing.
This work, which was published in this week’s advanced online edition of Nature, differens from some other stem cell-related hearing projects in that it focused on the nerves that carry sound sensation from the ear to the brain. Most people with hearing loss have damage to the hair cells within the ear that first detect sound. This kind of damage can be aided in some cases by cochlear implants. But if the nerves that transmit signals from the cochlear implant to the brain are damaged then the person still can’t hear. That’s where this new technology would fit in.
A story in the Technology Review says:
The stem-cell treatment could eventually be combined with cochlear implants to give more deaf patients the ability to hear. But much more work would be required to bring this idea to fruition.
The story goes on to quote Stefan Hellar from Stanford University, who has a CIRM-funded project to generate the hair cells that first detect sound (those are his embryonic stem cell-derived ear hair cells above). Technology Review goes on:
While the study shows the potential of stem cells to replace auditory nerve fibers, says Stefan Heller, who studies hair-cell function and regeneration at the Stanford School of Medicine, the results will be difficult to translate to patients. “It is virtually impossible to diagnose a reduction of auditory nerve fibers in hearing-loss patients.”
Our hearing loss fact sheet has more information about stem cell research into hearing loss, including a few videos about the work we fund.