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Stem cell hope for deaf people

13th September 2012

Researchers say they have made a breakthrough in treating deafness after stem cells were used for the first time to restore hearing in animals.

stem cell research

The team from the University of Sheffield found that hearing partially improved when nerves in the ear, which pass sounds into the brain, were rebuilt in gerbils.

Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, they said getting the same improvement in people would be a shift from being unable to hear traffic to hearing a conversation though experts acknowledge that treating humans in this way is still a distant prospect.

The researchers aimed to replace damaged nerve cells called spiral ganglion neurons - which pick up the electrical signals in the inner ear for hearing - with new ones.

They used stem cells from a human embryo, which are capable of becoming any other type of cell in the human body from nerve to skin, muscle to kidney.

These were then delicately injected into the inner ears of 18 deaf gerbils and over 10 weeks the gerbils’ hearing range improved on average by about 45% by the end of the study.

Dr Marcelo Rivolta said: “It would mean going from being so deaf that you wouldn’t be able to hear a lorry or truck in the street to the point where you would be able to hear a conversation.

“It is not a complete cure, they will not be able to hear a whisper, but they would certainly be able to maintain a conversation in a room.”

 

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