The hairs in the ear that detect sounds (auditory hair cells) have been grown in mice whose hair cells had been damaged. The mice did not have their full hearing restored, but an increase in their measured hearing threshold was recorded.
Rows of the auditory hair cells in the ear:
Deafness due to hair cell loss can result from noise exposure, aging, toxins, infections and some antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. Hearing loss affects more than 10 million people in the UK alone, 3.7 million of whom are of working age. Noise-induced hearing loss is reported by more than 150 people in the UK each year.
Deafness as a result of damage to the auditory hair cells in the cochlea is usually irreversible as under normal circumstances the hair cells do not regenerate. When the scientists on the research team injected the mice with a drug, the creation of new hair cells was induced. The mice then went from hearing nothing at all to picking up some of the sounds around them.
The drug used was chosen because it stimulated the growth of hair cells when added to stem cells that were taken from the ear. When it was given to the mice the hair cells were regenerated and after analysing their location, the improvement in hearing was shown to be related to the areas the hair cells grew back.
The results obtained with the mice are very promising. It is believed that this could be a potential therapeutic approach to treating deafness in humans, although human trials are still far in the future.
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