Yorkshire scientists in breakthrough on deafness

PIONEERING research lead by a South Yorkshire scientist has taken the first step towards curing deafness with stem cells grown in the laboratory.

Early versions of the sensory hair cells and neurons essential for hearing were made from stem cells taken from the human inner ear.

Scientists hope further work will lead to fully functional cells that could be used to treat total hearing loss.

The British-led team have now started the next stage of conducting research on animals.

Practical deafness treatments are believed to be at least 10 years away. But the cells could also provide useful tools for studying the causes of deafness and testing new drugs.

Lead researcher Dr Marcelo Rivolta, from the University of Sheffield, said: "The potential of stem cells is very exciting. We have now an experimental system to study genes and drugs in a human context.

"Moreover, these cells would help us to develop the technologies needed to deliver them into damaged tissues, such as the cochlea, in order to restore the different cell types.

"This should facilitate the development of a stem cell treatment for deafness."

Stem cells are immature cells, mostly found in embryos and foetuses, that can develop along a number of different pathways. Those used in the new research were isolated from the developing cochleas of discarded human foetuses aged nine to 11 weeks.

Dr Rivolta's team grew the cells in the laboratory and exposed them to a cocktail of special chemicals. Around 56% of the cells displayed the electrical and physical features of sensory hair cells - the cells in the inner ear that use tiny hairs to turn sound waves into nerve impulses.