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Deafness Cure Breakthrough As Scientists Create Ear Hairs From Stem Cells

May 14, 2010

Scientists have made delicate ear cells in a dish paving the way for a cure for deafness.

Grown in their thousands, the delicate hairs could be transplanted into the inner ear, restoring hearing to millions.

Some confidence-zapping balance disorders could also be eased, the researchers believe.

Scientists have created inner ear hairs, which are the linchpin of  hearing and balance.Scientists have created inner ear hairs, which are the linchpin of hearing and balance. They help convert vibrations made by sounds into nerve impulses that can be decoded by the brain

The breakthrough – which comes after 10 years of painstaking research – could also speed the search for new drug treatments that could prevent people from becoming hard of hearing.

Age-related hearing loss affects one in two Britons aged 60 and over and there is currently no way of holding it at bay.

Although it is often dismissed by younger people as a minor irritation, it can have a devastating effect on self confidence and cause sufferers to become socially isolated.

The stigma associated with going deaf means patients take an average of 15 years to seek help.

Hearing aids can amplify the sounds sufferers hear but nothing can give them back the hearing they once had.

The research, from the prestigious Stanford University, suggests that stem cell science could succeed where other branches of medicine have failed.

The scientists perfected the recipe for turning stem cells – ‘blank cells’ with the chameleon-like ability to turn into other cell types – into the delicate hairs found in the inner ear.

The linchpin of hearing and balance, these hairs help convert vibrations made by sounds into nerve impulses that can be decoded by the brain.

Ageing, noise and general wear and tear all lead to them withering away and, until now, there was no way of replacing them.

The hairs produced looked and acted like the real thing, the journal Cell reports.

How We Hear

1.  Sound waves travel through the funnel of the outer ear to the eardrum, making it vibrate, and setting off a chain reaction.

2.  The three smallest bones in the body – the hammer, anvil and stirrup of the middle ear – start moving, passing the vibrations to a thin layer of tissue at the entrance of the inner ear called the oval window.

3.  Pressure on the oval window squashes the fluid in the inner ear, creating waves in the canals of the snail-shaped cochlea.

4.  Delicate hairs in the cochlea convert this movement into nerve impulses which are carried to the brain by the auditory nerve.

5.  The brain decodes the information and tells you what you are hearing.


Researcher Stefan Heller said: ‘We knew it was really working when we saw them in the electron microscope.

‘They looked more or less like they were taken out of the ear.

If the same technique can be applied to human cells, within 10 years it might be possible to use transplants of the delicate hairs to restore hearing.

Using slivers of skin the patient’s skin a source of the all important stem cells would mean that any hairs generated would be a perfect match for the body.

It also raises the tantalising possibility of creating drugs that coax the ear into growing more hair cells of its own accord.

Professor Heller said: ‘For some reason we’ve lost this mechanism but it must still be there.

‘We could now test thousands of drugs in a  dish. Within a decade or so we could reap the benefits of this type of screening.’

Lead researcher Dr Kazuo Oshima said: ‘We’ve made hair-like cells in a petri dish. This is an important step towards development of future therapies.’

David Corey, a Harvard University expert on the workings of the inner ear, said: ‘This gives us real hope that there might be some kind of therapy for regenerating hair cells.

‘It could take a decade or more but it’s a possibility.’

Dr Ralph Holme, of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, said: ‘Loud noises can cause the cells to be damaged and they are gradually lost in the ageing process as well.

‘And once they have gone, they don’t come back again, which is why it is so important to find ways to regenerate them.

‘The possibility that stem cells could one day be used to restore hearing is really exciting and could benefit millions.’

RNID-funded researchers have already succeeded in turning human stem cells into hair cells.  However, they did not look quite as much like the real thing as the US ones.

The Sheffield University scientists are now using the lab-grown hairs to attempt to restore hearing to deaf animals.

They are also trying to work out how to grow the hairs in large numbers, while ensuring they are safe enough to be one day put into human ears.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. KR Dasharathi permalink
    May 14, 2010 8:47 am

    It is a wonderful news, but when will it be in the clinics is the Big question. Can the scientists predict the approximate time? It is not too much to ask for. Elderly people are waiting for it eagarly.

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