Human Stem Cells Restore Hearing in Gerbil Study
For the first time, scientists have improved hearing in deaf animals by using human embryonic stem cells, an encouraging step for someday treating people with certain hearing disorders.
"It's a dynamite study (and) a significant leap forward," said one expert familiar with the work, Dr. Lawrence Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco.
The experiment involved an uncommon form of deafness, one that affects fewer than 1 percent to perhaps 15 percent of hearing-impaired people. And the treatment wouldn't necessarily apply to all cases of that disorder. Scientists hope the approach can be expanded to help with more common forms of deafness. But in any case, it will be years before human patients might benefit.
Results of the work, done in gerbils, were reported online Wednesday in the journal Nature by a team led by Dr. Marcelo Rivolta of the University of Sheffield in England.
To make the gerbils deaf in one ear, scientists killed nerve cells that transmit information from the ear to the brain. The experiment was aimed at replacing those cells.
Human embryonic stem cells can be manipulated to produce any type of cell. Using them is controversial because they are initially obtained by destroying embryos. Once recovered, stem cells can be grown and maintained in a lab and the experiment used cells from lab cultures.