Behind the Headlines: Could stem cells cure deafness?

A cure for deafness using fetal stem cells could be a reality in the foreseeable future, newspaper reports say.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have found a way to convert human stem cells into replicas of sensory hair cells of the inner ear.

There is currently no cure for deafness resulting from damaged hair cells, but scientists believe stem cells could be a future treatment to restore hearing.

What is the research?
Human auditory stem cells were taken from the cochleas of nine- to 11-week-old fetuses.

A culture was then established which would allow the stem cells to expand and isolate from the fetal cochlea. Conditions were then successfully created to differentiate the stem cells into neuronal and hair-cell-like cells.

What do the researchers say?
Lead researcher Dr Marcelo Rivolta, of the University of Sheffield, said: 'The potential of stem cells is very exciting. We now have an experimental system to study genes and drugs in a human context.

'These cells would help us to develop the technologies needed to deliver them into damaged tissues, such as the cochlea, in order to restore the different cell types. This should facilitate the development of a stem cell treatment for deafness.'

Dr Ralph Holme, director of biomedical research at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, which provided funding for the research said: 'This research represents a breakthrough toward our long-term aims to restore damaged hair cells. It is very promising research, but people need to be aware that the possible cure for deafness is still at least 10 years away.'

What do other experts say?
Brian Gale, director of policy and campaigns at the National Deaf Children's Society, welcomed the research. In a number of years it could 'give young deaf people and their parents the choice of further reducing the impact of deafness', he said.

'We recognise that if this form of medical intervention does become available, the resulting improvement to hearing could possibly be more permanent than that afforded by cochlear implants or hearing aids,' he said.

'For now, priority should be given to improving health, social care and education for deaf children and young people,' he said.

Informing Patients

  • Scientists have found a way to convert fetal stem cells into hair cells.
  • The cells could provide a cure for deafness.
  • It will be at least 10 years before the development could lead to a treatment.

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