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Listen Up: Stem Cell Research Allowing Gerbils to Hear Again



Ever since George W Bush vetoed the use of stem cell research in the US back in 2006, it has been a mainstay in the mind of the public.  Why not use this type of research to give people a better quality of life, better yet, a cure?

Six years on and in the UK, stem cell research is still going on, and there are some good things to happen.  In 2009 tests showed that, if caught early on, multiple sclerosis symptoms could be reversed.  In 2011 a university in Illinois showed that injecting stem cells into the heart could reduce angina attacks.

Now there is an excellent chance that this type of research may lead to deaf people having their hearing back.  UK researchers found that using stem cell research in animals that had previously lost their hearing could have it restored.

The study which was carried on gerbils found that their hearing improved when nerves were rebuilt in the ear canal.  By treating humans the same, it could mean the difference between not hearing a lorry coming along the road to being able to have a conversation with a friend.  To pick up words, the ear converts the sound waves into electrical signals, and these are transmitted to the brain to understand.

This happens when sound travels to tiny hairs on the inside of the ear canal, and these, in turn, create the electrical signals that the brain will understand.  What happens to people is when the nerves are damaged within the eardrum, then the sound isn’t picked up as well and causes deafness.

The University of Sheffield’s research led to rebuilding the nerves that were previously damaged, called spiral ganglion neurons, and it is these that stem cell research is hoping to fix.  Stems are harvested from human embryos and can be used to create any other type of cell in the body from nerves to skin and organs as well as muscle.

The scientists have created a “chemical soup,” which was then converted into cells similar to that of the spiral ganglion neurons.  This was then injected to the ears of 18 gerbils, and over ten weeks, they discovered that on average, the gerbils hearing was restored to 45 percent.  Gerbils were used as they have hearing similar to humans, unlike mice who hear things at a higher pitch.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of something great for people who are deaf.  While still in the early stages, it does represent a significant breakthrough and can hopefully give hope to those who have too long been subject to the deafening silence.