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October 31, 2003

Mouse experiments may help end deafness

From: The Scotsman, UK - Oct 28, 2003

SCIENTISTS have taken a step towards finding a cure for permanent deafness by growing inner-ear hair cells in a laboratory, it was disclosed today.

The US team grew the cells from mouse embryonic stem cells to produce the tiny hairs inside the ear that respond to sound. They are an essential part of the hearing apparatus, but degrade throughout life and may be damaged by birth defects, drugs and exposure to loud noise.

Once the hair cells are destroyed, the body cannot replace them. Damage to the cells is the leading cause of permanent hearing loss.

Scientists in Massachusetts today described how they grew new hair cells from mouse embryonic stem cells - "master" cells that can develop into different kinds of tissue.

The researchers used a special cocktail of biochemicals called growth factors to coax the stem cells into becoming precursor inner-ear hair cells. These "progenitors" were then inserted into the developing ears of chicken embryos.

The cells integrated into the inner ear, produced genes and proteins specific to adult hair cells and generated bundles of hairs.

Stefan Heller of Harvard Medical School in Boston,

said the study could provide a foundation for further work looking at using stem cells "to functionally restore hearing in deaf patients".