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Is there a Cure?

One topic that was explored at this year’s Audiology NOW conference was a potential medical cure for hearing loss. Most hearing loss is a result of damage to the hair cells of the inner ear. Once these hair cells are damaged, there is no way to heal them.

anatomy-of-ear-pictureCurrently, there are four methods being investigated to re-grow these hair cells:

1) Gene therapy. This idea involves using a virus to deliver a special gene (called Atoh 1) to the inner ear. In studies with mice, this method helped to regrow some hair cells, but the cells did not grow back quite right and the mice went from being totally deaf to getting some hearing back – but not all.

2) Pharmacotherapy. In simple terms, using a drug to change supporting cells of the inner ear into new hair cells. This method has not been very successful in mice models

3) Exogenous stem cells. This means using embryonic stem cells from an external source and implanting them into the inner ear. In these studies, also in small mammals, the implants could not survive beyond 12 weeks. Additionally, surgical implantation of these cells is difficult without damaging the delicate inner ear.

4) Endogenous stem cells. This method uses the bodies own dormant stem cells to regrow new hair cells. The problem is that researchers are not even sure if these endogenous stem cells even exist. The evidence suggests that they probably do exist, but only in young mammals – we lose them as we age. This means it may be a potential cure for children, but not adults.

The take home message? There is exciting research being done, but most of the research suggests treatments for totally deaf individuals that will only partially restore hearing. And even this partial cure is likely decades away.

*Picture from med.standford.edu

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