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Stem Cells Help Deaf Gerbils Hear Again

Dr. Marcelo Rivolta headed the research team at the University of Sheffield in conducting the study. "We developed a method to drive human embryonic stem cells to produce both hair cells and neurons, or nerve cells, but we only transplanted the neurons," he explained. "We then used a technique called auditory brainstem evoked responses (ABR), which measures if the brain can perceive an electrical signal after sound stimulation.

"The responses of the treated animals were substantially better than those untreated, although the range of improvement was broad. Some subjects did very well, while in others recovery was poor."

On average, the animals experienced a functional recovery of about 46 percent, he said. The improvement was evident about four weeks after administering the cells.

Rivolta cautioned that more research is needed.

"For instance," he said, "we want to understand the long-term implications of this treatment and its safety. Moreover, while in auditory neuropathy patients that retain their hair cells the sole application of stem cells could be beneficial, those with more comprehensive damage may need a cochlear implant to compensate for the hair cell deficit. In these patients it is possible that stem cells should be administered in combination with a cochlear implant. It is therefore important to explore this interaction."

UK's Medical Research Council and research charity Action on Hearing Loss funded the study.

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University of Sheffield