One in two people over the age of 75 have disabling hearing loss and there is no biological treatment, but scientists at the University of Rochester are using regeneration to try and repair damage done by either damage from sound or damage acquired from age.
Losing hearing over time means hair cells in the ear stop detecting vibrations, and more specifically the cochlea.
“If hair cells are lost,” said Dr. Patricia White, University of Rochester research associate professor, “Then a person is no longer able to hear those frequencies.”
White says there is still hope. Hope that is found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. “If you deafen a bird, that bird will recover it’s hearing in a month or two. It will hear perfectly just like it did a month before,” said White.
The goal is to replicate that in humans using stem cells that could regenerate as hair cells. The focus is on those that have lost hearing because of old age as well as those that may have lost it because of constant exposure to loud noise, like a soldier on the battlefield.
This study, led by post-doctoral associate Dr. Jing Yuan, could mean a chance at that regeneration. “It’s very encouraging at the first glance,” said Yuan.
They have now been able to re-develop hair cells in mice. It was first under a microscope and now in the actual mouse itself. “We can trigger this event, and surprisingly we found there’s a lot of proliferation,” said Yuan. That means cells multiplying and potentially leading to natural healing and hearing.
The next step is clinical trials on humans that have experienced hearing loss with the goal to one day have a non-invasive procedure, like ear drops, that can be used to heal those damaged cells.