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October 25, 2003

Hope for deaf patients

From:, China - Oct 25, 2003

In a world first for China, local scientists said yesterday they have segregated certain stem cells from mice ears, which could be utilized to create a new therapy for hearing-impaired patients.

Their thesis was published in the October issue of Nature-Medicine - a renowned monthly scientific journal.

"Our achievement prophesies a possibility of helping hearing-impaired patients to hear again by implanting the specialized stem cells into their inner ears," said Wang Zhengmin, director of the Shanghai Institute of Hearing Science, which is affiliated to the Shanghai Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital.

Supported by grants of several million yuan from local and central governments, Wang's six fellow researchers - aided by their counterparts at Harvard University in the United States - spent the past decade completing what they believe is a major scientific break-through in hearing research.

Deafness is a disability caused by various factors, including medical side effects, virus infection and old age.

According to the hospital, there are about 20 million deaf people in China, which represent almost one-fourth of the country's total number of handicapped population.

"Since mice and humans share a great deal of similarity in genetic characters, the hearing-related stem cells found in mice will be highly enlightening to research on human beings," said Wang.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can give rise to many other specialized cells, meaning they can be adapted into other cells, such as a blood cell.

Since the human "inner ear" is comprised of various types of cells, including different neural cells, deafness is considered an impairment that is very difficult to cure.

"Now we are trying to specialize these acquired stem cells into other types of hearing-related cells so that we will be able to help deaf people regain their hearing ability in the foreseeable future," Wang added.

Cao yilin, a professor of Shanghai No 9 People's Hospital who leads the city's only Shanghai Tissue Engineering Center, commented: "It is an encouraging scientific breakthrough."'

Duan shumin, of the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, thinks it will "take some time before the stem cells are put into practical use."

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