Marcelo Rivolta has a reason to be excited. The research biologist and his colleagues at University of Sheffield in the UK have had a major breakthrough in research which could make life a lot easier for some 275 million people in the world.
Rivolta, also the lead author of the paper that appears in Nature, wrote, "We have the proof of concept that we can use human embryonic stem cells to repair the damaged ear." The biologists managed to use human embryonic cells to repair damaged hearing in a gerbil, and are eager to perform more studies to ensure it can be done on a consistent basis.
Nerve deafness is the most common cause of hearing loss, when the tiny hair follicles in the inner ear become damaged or die. Symptoms of this type of hearing loss might include a persistent ringing in the ears, inability to hear high-pitch sounds like whistles, and an inability to follow conversations. Often people with sensorineural hearing loss (nerve deafness) make mistakes in understanding words.
For example, say someone tells you, "I think you'll get an 'A' on your test," but you hear it as, "I think you're getting hair on your chest." People with this type of hearing loss experience these types of misunderstandings often, which frustrates social interactions, and can isolate the person from friends, family, and coworkers because of this.
Of course, not all people with hearing loss will embrace this development. The cochlear implant is already a contentious and controversial device that gives those with nerve deafness mechanical hearing that bypasses the ears and sends sound directly into the brain. Some in the deaf community feel as though curing deafness is a form of genocide. This is an extreme opinion, however, and not everyone in the deaf community feels this way.
Others object to the use of human embryonic cells because it destroys a living embryo despite the fact that it is not a fully formed human being. The objections are mostly from religious folks who believe that life starts at conception, and the destruction of an embryo is unacceptable to them on moral grounds.
Regardless of various opinions on the matter, the fact that a previously irreversible condition was reversed by human embryonic stem-cells is a phenomenal step forward in research science. It is heralding in a new age of medicine in which people with heart disease or lung cancer might have hope for a more healthy future.
Researchers say that the inner ear, where nerve deafness occurs, is a complex organ, and the gerbil research was only one of many ways that they can approach a solution to progressive hearing loss and even in people who were born deaf.
If you had a hearing loss due to inner ear nerve damage, would you want to be "cured" this way?
Image credit: Nissim Benvenisty, Wikimedia Commons