An early step toward a cure for hearing loss?

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© Sung-Il Kim/Corbis

A new development with mouse embryonic stem cells could pave the way for future research into human hearing — and even a cure for some types of hearing loss. A study published in the May 14 issue of the journal Cell details how a team of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine found a way to grow hair-like cells — like those found in the inner ear of humans — from mouse embryonic stem cells. They are hopeful that the breakthrough will enabling them to gain a better understanding of the molecular structure of cells critical to hearing, potentially laying a foundation for ways to treat hearing loss.

From mouse embryonic stem cells, researchers were able to grow what closely resemble stereocilia, or fine, hair-like wisps that protrude from cells in the inner ear. As HealthDay News reports: “When sound vibrations reach the stereocilia, the vibrations are converted into a signal that can be interpreted in the brain as sound. But when these hair cells are lost or damaged, they cannot regenerate, and hearing loss occurs.”

Researchers are hopeful that they take the initial technique used to grow small initial batches, and generate these hair-like cells in the millions, giving them the ability to study their molecular structure in closer detail. (Though there are some 30,000 of two different types of sensory hair-like cells in the inner ear, researchers say that they are notoriously difficult to isolate and keep alive for research.)

With more ready access to these cells for study, researchers hope that future investigations will yield clues about how to regrow these sensitive components of the inner-ear, potentially leading to drug interventions or other techniques to enable the body to regrow these cells — which are not only critical to hearing, but play an important role in balance as well.