Deaf News: A cure for deafness on the horizon? Stem cells restore hearing in deaf gerbils

Posted on September 12, 2012

It’s been under two years since Ted Evans’s award-winning film The End projected a future where deafness could be cured through a ‘treatment,’ the film going on to explore the idea of a world in which deaf culture, sign language and deaf people are a thing of the past.

In a case of art potentially meeting reality, today it has been announced that scientists at the University of Sheffield have used human stem cells to restore hearing in gerbils.

On average, the hearing of the deaf gerbils used in the study improved by 45%, with some getting a 90% gain, while others had no improvement at all. However this is seen as a huge breakthrough in hearing-loss research, because this is the first time stem cells have been shown to improve hearing in animals.

BBC News reports:

UK researchers say they have taken a huge step forward in treating deafness after stem cells were used to restore hearing in animals for the first time.

Hearing partially improved when nerves in the ear, which pass sounds into the brain, were rebuilt in gerbils – a UK study in the journal Nature reports.

Getting the same improvement in people would be a shift from being unable to hear traffic to hearing a conversation. However, treating humans is still a distant prospect.

Extract from the Action on Hearing Loss (who co-funded the study) website:

Dr Marcelo Rivolta, who led the project, said: ‘We believe this is an important step forward. We now have 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. And more importantly, we have the proof-of-concept that human stem cells could be used to repair the damaged ear.

‘More research is needed. For instance, we want to understand the long term implications of this treatment and its safety.’

Click here for the study, published in Nature:

Click here for the BBC News item on the story:

And click here for the Action on Hearing Loss story:

Photo credit: Nolando Pobre

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