Each human is born with around 15,000 hair cells inside each ear. Once they’re damaged they’re gone, as unlike other animals humans can’t repair them.
Damage to these hair cells is one of the leading causes of hearing loss, something that affects some 45 million Americans. Finding a way of either repairing or regrowing those hair cells would be a major breakthrough then.
Well a team of researchers from MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts Eye and Ear believe they’ve found a combination of drugs which can actually stimulate the ear into growing new hair cells.
Hair cell death can be caused by a number of factors including ageing, chemotherapy, certain types of antibiotics and of course noise exposure.
Senior author of the study Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT said: “Hearing loss is a real problem as people get older. It’s very much of an unmet need, and this is an entirely new approach,”
The team had actually started exploring the idea of generating new hair cells back in 2013 when they found that they could create large quantities of intestinal cells and then stimulate them into differentiating.
They then tried the same approach on cells from a mouse cochlea and found that they could indeed create a large pool of immature progenitor cells.
Once they had a solid foundation of cells they then added another set of molecules that provoked them into becoming hair cells.
While the team had to artificially nudge the cells into becoming hair cells this wouldn’t actually be necessary inside a live ear.
“We only need to promote the proliferation of these supporting cells, and then the natural signalling cascade that exists in the body will drive a portion of those cells to become hair cells,” says Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and also a senior author on the paper.
Because the treatment involves simple drug exposure the researchers are confident it would be easily administered to humans through an injection.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Dr. Ralph Holme, Director of Research at Action on Hearing Loss, said: “We welcome this exciting research that gives us hope that it may be possible to restore hearing for some people in the future.
“The findings are from studying cells grown in a laboratory, so more research is now needed to show that the approach will also work in whole intact ears.”
In order to speed this process up, some members of the team have actually started a company called Frequency Therapeutics which has licensed the technology and plans to start human testing in as little as 18 months.