Stem cells used to restore hearing in gerbils


Gerbil (Photo credit: Jonttu Leskinen)

Rachel Kendall (11AM Micro) found this article from the Newsdaily website about the promise of stem cells in novel medical treatments. Here is Rachel’s summary:

For many years, scientists have been trying to solve problems or illnesses that people have in order to cure them. Many scientists work on cures for a variety of things, such as cancer, blindness, and deafness. Although they are trying in desperation to find a cure, many times they are unsuccessful. However, every experiment they conduct leads them one step closer to finding a solution.

Recently, scientists in London, England have made significant discoveries in the hopes of one day restoring hearing to “people with an intractable form of deafness caused by nerve damage.” Deafness, a loss in hearing, may be caused by nerve damage or loss, as well as a deficiency of cells found in the ear. After realizing that the cells that allow us to hear are only made in the womb, scientists decided to see if they could use stem cells from the embryo to treat deafness.

After deafening gerbils, an animal who hear mainly the same frequencies that humans do, scientists were able to try to restore their hearing by injecting embryonic stem cells.  Although the results of the gerbils’ hearing recovery were not all the same, scientists had made a small breakthrough. On average, the gerbils hearing was “46 percent” restored. Marcelo Rivolta, a scientist at the University of Sheffield, claimed that “”If this was a human patient, it would mean going from being so deaf as to be unable to hear a lorry or truck on the street to being able to maintain a conversation.” This is a huge step in the right direction. When a person is completely deaf, restoring approximately fifty percent of their hearing will create a not only a dramatic, but also a positive difference on their quality of life.

Embryonic stem cells have been used in many different experiments in the past to heal nerves, and even a variety of problems. In a recent case, two women who had irreversible eye damage used embryonic cells to improve their vision. Scientists are hoping to cure diseases such as “Parkinson’s and diabetes.” Showing that we can improve cell recovery by using embryonic cells is a significant advance in the field of science.

Although the use of embryonic stem cell is as step in the right direction for finding a cure, there are many things that scientists are unsure of. Since the gerbil experiment was relatively short, a ten week study, there are some issues that the scientist could not observe, such as tumor growth. With those potential risks, scientists have decided to work on small areas that have “less cells” such as the eye and the ear in hope to move on to areas that have a larger number of cells.

With all the recent discoveries in the field of science concerning embryonic stem cell research, we are finally moving forward. Although there are still concerns regarding side effects, the experiment concerning the gerbils, not only gave us a new understanding of stem cell research, but gave people, who have a hearing loss, a new found hope.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on September 17, 2012, in Guest Post. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The advancements being made with stem cells are interesting to read about. Although no conclusions can be made, the progress noted is remarkable.

    I was wondering if there is a physical difference between being born deaf or becoming deaf later on (such as an injury). If the gerbils were born deaf, instead of the scientists causing, would a greater/lesser outcome occur? This seems significant in the hopes of expanding from the gerbil experiment to the human race.

    • Fascinating question! Rachel’s article looked at gerbils who had their hearing damaged by trauma, a condition which is common with humans and this report indicates that the stem cell therapy might have promise in restoring hearing lost in these situations. Many cases of human deafness occur from congenital conditions, and result in individuals who never had hearing. I don’t know why the current research was performed with gerbils, and I could not find an obvious citation for a congenital gerbil model for deafness. With mice however it’s a different story, and there are many transgenic mouse lines which are born deaf. Some of these might mimic congenital deafness conditions in humans and therefore be an excellent system to address exactly your question.

  2. I know the idea of stem cell research is one of controversy but to see positive results from this study is truly amazing. I think a step in the right direction will provide hope for many in the future with a variety of disabilities. However, I wonder what the extent of this procedure entails. I know a little about cochlear implants and their effect on the deaf, but I was curious about which procedure would be more efficient. I know that cochlear implants are bulky and rather noticeable, and that they are a surgical procedure which like any surgery could have side effects. The study notes possible tumors; but are there risks involved with the stem cell route from the procedure?

  3. I’ve always found stem cell research really interesting. It’s nice to see an article about a study that seems to be going in the right direction. I know it was only briefly mentioned, but I would definitely be interested in finding out more about the idea of stem cells being used to cure diabetes because I have a history of it in my family. For example, would it be equally effective against Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, or would one be easier or harder to get rid of?

    • I would suspect that Type I (insulin dependent) diabetes might be easier to treat with stem cells. In the case of Type I diabetes, the cells that normally produce insulin lose their function. Replacing those cells with pluripotent stem cells might allow for elimination of the disease. In the case of Type II (non-insulin dependent) the rest of the cells of the body lose their ability to respond to insulin that is being produced. In that case, you would have to correct the defect in all of those cells, and I do not think that stem cells would be a reasonable approach to fixing this.

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