Cure for deafness moves a step closer

SCIENTISTS at Sheffield University yesterday said a cure for deafness is a step closer, after they used human embryonic stem cells to treat a common form of hearing loss.

In research funded by the Medical Research Council and charity “Action on Hearing Loss”, experts developed a method to turn the stem cells into ear cells.

They then transplanted them into deaf gerbils, obtaining a “functional recovery” evident about four weeks after administering the cells.

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A spokesman for the university said: “As well as proving that stem cells can be used to repair damaged hearing, it is hoped the breakthrough will lead to new treatments and therapies.”

Dr Marcelo Rivolta, who led the project, added: “We developed a method to drive human embryonic stem cells to produce both hair cells and neurons, or nerve cells, but we only transplanted the neurons.

“We then used a technique called auditory brainstem evoked responses, which measures if the brain can perceive an electrical signal after sound stimulation.

“The responses of the treated animals were substantially better than those untreated, although the range of improvement was broad.”

Dr Rivolta said that more research is now needed to understand the long-term implications of the treatment, and its safety.

“We believe this an important step forward”, he said.

“We have now a method to produce human cochlear sensory cells that we could use to develop new drugs and treatments.

“And more importantly, we have the proof-of-concept that human stem cells could be used to repair the damaged ear.”

Dr Ralph Holme from Action on Hearing Loss said the research gave “real hope that it will be possible to fix the actual cause of some types of hearing loss in the future.”

He added: “For the millions of people for whom hearing loss is eroding their quality of life, this can’t come soon enough.”