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Can science repair damaged ears?
It’s true – scientists have made steps toward replicating healthy hearing cells and implanting them straight into suffering ears. But before you go blasting music and blaring your TV, let’s take a look at what this could actually mean for the future of hearing health.
It all starts with stem cells
Researchers at the University of Indiana have made advancements using pluripotent stem cells to create functioning pieces of the inner ear, complete with hair cells and neurons. This type of stem cells is truly miraculous, allowing scientists to transform existing cells back into what some are calling ‘blank slate cells.”
An in-depth look at their approach
To get started, the Indiana research team arranged the cells in a sort of organic gel matrix that can be most closely compared to chunks of fruit in jelly. The cells were then tagged with a fluorescent gene that would make a glowing signature if they produced certain cell types successfully. The team was able to turn the stem cells into small particles of the inner ear by applying proteins at a very specific time in a step-by-step process. After a few weeks of close attention, the small globs had successfully developed into bits of an ear, which included hair cells that both looked and functioned correctly and neurons that sent sound signals to the brain.
What does this mean for the future?
While the researchers didn’t apply their learnings to any patients yet, and there is still much work to be done in the stem cell space, the industry is considering this a major step forward. “It’s a biological remedy to hearing loss,” Eric Topol, Founder and Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in California, said. “The idea, to be able to one day take a tube of blood and make your hair cells and implant is really exciting. I think it’s the future.”