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New Adult Stem Cell Treatment for Deafness In The Making

April 2009

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If you ever feel that the world offers nothing new, you only have to look to stem cell research and find inspiration from modern science. Adult stem cell cures are expanding rapidly, and deafness is the latest, so-called 'incurable' disease that scientists have now determined could be helped by stem cell therapy available in Thailand. We check out the study and possibilities.

Deafness is one of the most debilitating illnesses worldwide, after blindness - yet affects millions more people than sight loss does. More than 250 million people suffer from some form of hearing loss worldwide, and a new stem cell therapy has the potential to help them. It was five years ago when scientists first began making major breakthroughs in stem cell research towards this eventual aim, however research has stalled with no specific human candidate cell type to develop the technology. Researchers at the University of Sheffield though have made another long-awaited breakthrough in the field of auditory injury recovery.

The study was led by Marcelo N Rivolta, and has successfully isolated human auditory stem cells from fetal cochleae. They discovered that these stem cells had the capacity to differentiate into neurons and sensory 'hair' cells. Cochlear cells from 9 to 11 week old fetuses were painstakingly collected and cultured, expanded and kept alive in vitro for up to a year. The cells were set to continuously divide for the first 7 to 8 months, with up to 30 population doublings to create a body of cells large enough to test with. This is similar to other adult stem cells, such as those derived from bone marrow or fat. The 'hair' cells that they grew had the same functional, electrophysiological characteristics that were seen in vivo.

This stem cell research, like most other studies, still needs more work. The hair cells didn’t show the typical bundle formation that is seen in natural auditory cells. This is expected to be one of the first areas of study for the future. Thai stem cell therapy providers will also be looking into whether autologous stem cell therapy, with cells derived from a patient's own fat, can be of benefit for hearing loss patients.

The groundwork for this study was laid several years ago. In 2003, scientists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor used gene therapy to grow new auditory cells in guinea pigs, and other medical researchers were quick to pick up on the possibilities for humans. By 2007, the genes in human ear cells had been restored, however, in the meantime the future of medicine had shifted away from gene therapy, and onto adult stem cell cures as a method for curing human disease and assisting injury recovery of many different organs. Steven Heller is a leading researcher in this field, working at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and in 2007 had the goal of curing deafness within mice by 2012. He is also studying birds, which have the ability to spontaneously regenerate their hearing cells- there are no deaf birds.

Stefan Heller's stem cell research on deafness was first widely publicized in 2006, when CBS evening news first reported on Heller and his colleagues figuring out how to inject stem cells into the ears of mouse embryos, and watching them grow. The stem cells were found to be especially good at growing into the hair cells that make hearing possible - more than other types of cells. "It's like a little microphone in your ear," said Heller at the time. "When the microphones go bad, then you don't hear anymore. We can grow these tiny microphones from these stem cells."


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