Human stem cells cure common form of deafness

September 13, 2012

Human stem cell-derived otic neurons (yellow) repopulating the cochlea of deaf gerbils (credit: University of Sheffield)

University of Sheffield scientists have used human embryonic stem cells to treat auditory neuropathy, a common form of hearing loss.

They turned human embryonic stem cells into ear cells and transplanted them into deaf gerbils, obtaining a 46 per cent recovery of hearing four weeks after administering the cells.

The hearing loss successfully treated by the scientists is similar to a human condition known as auditory neuropathy, a form of deafness in which the damage occurs in the connection of the hair cells with the brain. Patients can be born with it or environmental factors, such as jaundice at birth and noise exposure later in life, can be risk factors. It is thought to represent up to 15 per cent of those with profound hearing loss.

“We have now a method to produce human cochlear sensory cells that we could use to develop new drugs and treatments, and to study the function of genes, said Dr Marcelo Rivolta, who led the project. “And more importantly, we have the proof-of-concept that human stem cells could be used to repair the damaged ear.”

The research was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and Action on Hearing Loss.