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March 22, 2004

Hair cells grown from mouse stem cells

Scientists at the Harvard Medical School have raised the hopes of those dreaming of a possible new treatment of hearing loss and even deafness some time in the distant future.

The team of researchers has created inner ear hair cells from mouse embryonic stem cells and successfully implanted them into the developing ears of embryonic chickens.

The small hairs in the inner ear are central to human hearing. Once damaged or destroyed, they cannot regenerate, making the resulting hearing loss permanent. Damaged or destroyed hair cells are the cause in 80 percent of all instances of human hearing loss. And any process to regenerate or replace human inner ear hair cells is seen as one of the possible avenues towards future treatment, or even a cure, for some hearing loss.

At Harvard's Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the hair cells, or mechanoreceptor cells, were created from the embryonic mouse stem cells in Petri dishes. The cells showed all the markers of hair cells and even began to physically resemble tiny hair cells under the right conditions. They were then transplanted into the inner ear of chicken embryos, because these embryos have no immune system to reject the cells. In the inner ear of the young chicks, the mouse stem cells later exhibited all the hallmarks of inner ear hair cells.

The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and welcomed by experts in the field, such as the chairman of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, James Battey. Battey, however, questioned some of the results and cautioned that this line of research is still in its infancy.

Sources: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11th November, 2003, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 28th October, 2003.

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