Certain types of hearing loss could soon be cured thanks to pioneering research using stem cells, it has been announced.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield managed to grow early versions of sensory hair cells that turn sound waves into nerve impulses, and nerve cells that transmit hearing messages to the brain - known as auditory neurons - in laboratory conditions using stem cells taken from the human inner ear of foetuses.
The team, writing in the journal Stem Cells, hopes that further work will lead to fully functional cells that could be used to treat total hearing loss, though it says practical deafness treatments are at least 10 years away.
Lead researcher Dr Marcelo Rivolta said: ‘The potential of stem cells is very exciting. We have now an experimental system to study genes and drugs in a human context.
‘Moreover, these cells would help us to develop the technologies needed to deliver them into damaged tissues, such as the cochlea, in order to restore the different cell types.
‘This should facilitate the development of a stem cell treatment for deafness.’
Stem cells are immature cells, mostly found in embryos and foetuses, that can develop along a number of different pathways.
Dr Rivolta’s team managed to grow cells in the inner ear that use tiny hairs to turn sound waves into nerve impulses after exposing the stem cells to a cocktail of special chemicals.