Scientists in England say they have successfully restored hearing in deaf gerbils using stem cell treatments that could eventually help people with certain types of hearing disorders.
"We have the proof of concept that we can use human embryonic stem cells to repair the damaged ear," said the lead researcher, Marcelo Rivolta, a stem-cell biologist at the University of Sheffield, in a study published in the journal Nature.
More than 275 million people have moderate-to-profound hearing loss according to Nature, and many of those cases are due to a breach in the connection between the inner ear and the brain.
In this study, Rivolta and his team were able to make the first real link between the inner ear and the central nervous system using stem cells implanted in 18 gerbils with complete hearing loss in one ear.
The gerbils were made deaf with a drug that killed nerve cells transmitting information from the ear to the brain.
With further research, experts say the treatment used on the gerbils could be applied to cases of deafness in humans, but not before much more research is conducted.
"I think [applying this treatment to humans] is a ways down the line," said Richard Altschuler, a developmental biologist with the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan, who has worked on similar studies in the U.S.
"We need to see a more robust connection to the central nervous system," said Altschuler in a phone interview on Thursday. "But it's a step," he said. "It helps to identify a population and source of stem cells, it helps to establish a protocol for differentiating the cells into an appropriate niche and space in the cochlea, and it shows that they can make connections to the central nervous system, something that hasn't been shown before until now."