Stem cells discovery helping patients to recover hearing
Profound deafness caused by inner ear nerve damage can be cured with stem cells, a proof-of-concept study has shown.
The pioneering research could lead to the first patients being treated within "a few years", scientists said.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield used human embryonic stem cells to reverse total deafness in gerbils.
Gerbils were used in the experiments because they hear the same range of sounds as humans, unlike mice which are sensitive to higher frequencies.
"What we have shown here is functional recovery using human stem cells, which is unique.
"As a proof-of-concept we have shown that human stem cells can be used to repair the ear."
Auditory neuropathy deafness can be caused by faulty genes and be present from birth. Other risk factors include being born with jaundice, noise exposure, and ageing.
"It's difficult to say when we might be able to treat patients.
"We're hoping in a few years, but first we need to understand more about the biology of the system and whether it is sustainable in time and safe."
Dr Ralph Holme, from the charity Action on Hearing Loss which partly funded the studies, said: "The research... is tremendously encouraging and gives us real hope that it will be possible to fix the actual cause of some types of hearing loss in the future".