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Human Stem Cells Restore Hearing to Deaf Gerbils in Study
Date:9/12/2012

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Using nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells, researchers report that they restored hearing in deaf gerbils.

About 80 percent to 90 percent of deafness is due to problems with the cells in the inner ear, explained senior study author Marcelo Rivolta, a reader in sensory stem cell biology at the University of Sheffield, in England. In the inner ear, two types of cells are key to hearing. One type are tiny projections called hair cells, which convert sound vibrations into electrical signals, which then travel along the auditory nerve to the brain.

When hair cells are damaged, cochlear implants can help overcome that by converting sound vibrations into electrical signals, bypassing the hair cells and directing stimulating the auditory nerve, experts explained. But when the cause of deafness is damage to the neurons that make up the auditory nerve, much less can be done about it, Rivolta said.

"We have concentrated on trying to fix the problem at the neuronal level. The cochlear implant is a device that functionally replaces the hair cell -- it takes sound and transforms it into an electrical signal," Rivolta said. "But for the cochlear implant to work, you have to have a good connection to the brain."

In the study, which is published online in the Sept. 12 issue of Nature, researchers coaxed human embryonic stem cells -- which have the potential to grow into any type of cell in the body -- into differentiating into otic (ear) progenitor cells. They did this by placing the stem cells into a test tube that contained certain molecules known to be present during fetal development when the ear forms.

Progenitors are immature cells that haven't fully differentiated into their specific role, but have certain characteristics that have started them down that path. Researchers then further coaxed the progen
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