Patients are always asking me if anything can be done to bring back the hearing they have lost without using hearing aids. In the past, my answer was always a, “No, but wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Now, my answer is, “Not yet, but scientists are getting closer all the time and it won’t be more than a handful of years and it may be possible.” While sometimes controversial, stem cell research is making this a possibility in the not-so-distant future.
What is Stem Cell Research?
At a most basic level, stem cell research is the practice of taking human cells and developing them into other varieties of cells in the body. Many scientists and researchers are very hopeful that this will someday give us the ability to find treatments and cures for diseases like heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and diabetes. Stem cell research may also hold the key for helping to rebuild the inner hair cells in the cochlear, the site of hearing loss for many people.
This blog will not address any of the legal or moral issues of Stem Cell Research, nor will it address the ethics of cloning.
Hearing aids and cochlear implants have done wonders to help recover some hearing function, but they are not the same as hearing like a person with normal cochlear/hair cell function. Stem cell treatment may be able to repair the damaged cochlea and has the potential to restore hearing. Per Stanford School of Medicine, “One approach to restore hearing might be to surgically place stem cells within the cochlea in such a way that they would fuse with the remaining cochlear structures and develop and function as hair cells. Scientists believe this is a viable approach because, unlike most organs that are destroyed by disease, the inner ear remains structurally intact—only the hair cells are lost.” The potential stem cells are taken from the patient’s own skin cells and have been genetically reprogrammed to revert back to stem cells. Patients are able to be treated with their own cells!
Scientists in multiple countries have been able to regenerate hair cells in multiple animals, but trials and tests will need to be done on human ears. The good news is that there is hope to help repair hearing in the future!
Until next time,