A study recently published in the journal Nature has offered hope that stem cell treatment may be used to cure deafness. Researchers from the University of Sheffield in England and the Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok developed the pioneering stem cell treatment thanks to funds from the UK charities Action on Hearing Loss, Deafness Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and the governmental Medical Research Council.
Gerbils were treated in the laboratory to repair nerves in their ears which are responsible for relaying sound information to the brain. The damaged nerves were rebuilt using a cutting-edge new stem cell therapy, and the results were astounding, as researchers report that a significant number of the deaf gerbils had their hearing restored. This treatment may offer help to the one in ten people afflicted by auditory neuropathy, a condition wherein the spiral ganglion neuron cells (located in the ear) involved in hearing become damaged, for reasons which are not yet understood by doctors. Researchers set out replace the damaged nerves in gerbils with human embryo stem cells, which have the capacity to become any type of cell in the human body. Stem cells were treated with a chemical which made them genetic clones of healthy spiral ganglion neurons; the healthy cells were then directly injected into the ears of 18 deaf gerbils.
At the end of the ten-week study, researchers noted substantial improvement in the hearing of each gerbil, with 45 per cent of the test subjects recovered significant hearing when compared with those gerbils not treated. Lead researcher Dr. Marcelo Rivolta said of the study; “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.”
Though a treatment applicable to humans remains a distant possibility, this new study has marked an incredible step forwards in the research needed to find a cure.