One of the incredible aspects of stem cell research is the sheer breadth of conditions that can potentially be treated. Hearing loss is one such condition that may benefit from stem cells. Experimentation is currently underway to find out how stem cells can impact hearing. If research proves successful human trials can hopefully be performed to further explore this possible new treatment.
Your inner ear essentially has two key parts – there is an auditory area that is involved in hearing and there is a vestibular system that is involved in balance. Within the inner ear are critical hair cells; these hair cells have vital structures that detect and respond to sound, transmitting nerve signals to the brain. Many things can wreck havoc on the hair cells, such as drugs, excessive exposure to loud noises, aging, or infection.
Research on Stem Cells and Hearing Loss
The identification of stem cells from the inner ear of mice is a relatively new occurrence. Like all stem cells, these inner ear cells have the ability to self-renew and divide. It has been found that under appropriate conditions, these cells can develop into cells that are similar to the hair cells, which is an initial and important step towards treating hearing loss in humans. Studies around the world have thus far been performed, which look at the relationship between stem cells and hearing. One particular study was able to trigger embryonic mouse stem cells to develop into special precursor cells in the ear. These precursor cells can then differentiate into the hair cells within the inner ear. The use of embryonic stem cells does, however, have advantages and disadvantages for this type of treatment. There are still numerous ethical concerns regarding the use of embryonic stem cells but the advantage is that large numbers of hair cells can ultimately be generated from embryonic stem cells.
There is, however, still a great deal of research that must be done to address the challenges of developing stem cell treatments for hearing loss. The ability to successfully trigger stem cells to develop into these hair-like cells is still weak. Researchers need to find ways to carefully and effectively coax the cells to differentiate into the required ones, without allowing the cell to die or grow uncontrollably. In practical terms, the development of surgical techniques to properly transplant the stem cells into the inner ear still requires refining. Ultimately, stem cells work differently from current treatments for hearing loss because they operate to restore hearing structure and function to its natural state. This contrasts sharply with drug treatment or manually implanted devices to improve hearing and slow hearing loss.
Hearing loss is devastating for those who experience it, whether the degree is mild or severe. Because humans communicate through spoken language, hearing loss can lead to mental health conditions such as depression as well as leaving a person socially isolated and struggling to maintain relationships. Thus, research into stem cells and hearing loss is a vital area that must be sustained and developed. Fortunately, many researchers are committed to work in this field and progress is ongoing, which is good news for those who suffer from hearing loss.