Friday, May 14, 2010

Stanford Discovery Could Lead To Cure For Deafness

Stanford Discovery Could Lead To Cure For Deafness

A new discovery from Stanford researchers may pave the way for treatment -- and even a possible cure -- for deafness.

Stem cell scientists reported Thursday that they have for the first time created in the laboratory the inner-ear cells responsible for hearing and balance.

For the profoundly deaf, a risky and invasive cochlear implant is currently the only way to restore hearing.

Doctors said in the vast majority of cases, the auditory nerve is intact. But it's the inner ear that doesn't work.

“It's usually a loss of the sensory cells inside of the cochlea,” said Stanford Cochlear Implant Surgeon Dr. Nikolas Blevins. “And that is exactly what a cochlear implant is designed to bypass.”

Thursday’s announcement suggests that there may be another way.

“It's a huge step forward for basic science,” said Professor of Otolaryngology Stefan Heller.

Professor Heller and his colleagues said the huge step is that they've created the first functional cochlear sensory cells from stem cells.

Inside the spiral inner ear, there are only a few thousand sensory cells. They do not regenerate once damaged by noise, virus or if genetically absent. Deafness is permanent.

Scientists used mouse stem cells to create sensory cells that had a tiny but critical hair bundle.

“This is a sensor which detects sound vibration and converts it to electrical signal,” explained Stanford researcher Dr. Kazuo Oshima.

“Fascinatingly, the cells were working which is a major step forward,” said Heller. “Eventually in the future possibly a cure for hearing loss.”

Researchers cautioned that parents should not wait for this cure because it could be a decade or more away. And while some people in the deaf community applaud research, one summed it up to KTVU in a view not uncommon among deaf people: "Why don't they quit trying to fix us."