Gerbil tests could help the deaf to hear again

SCIENTISTS have restored hearing to deaf gerbils using human embryonic stem cells in an advance that could eventually help people with an intractable form of deafness, caused by nerve damage.

The procedure needs further animal research to assess safety and long-term effectiveness, but researchers said the experiment was an important proof of 
concept, marking a further advance in the growing field of regenerative medicine.

Marcelo Rivolta, from the University of Sheffield, who led the research, said the first patients could receive cell therapy for hearing loss in clinical trials in “a few years”.

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After treating 18 gerbils with deafness in one ear, his team reported in the journal Nature that stem cells produced an 
average 46 per cent recovery in hearing, measured by electrical signals in the animals’ brains.

“If this was a human patient, it would mean going from being so deaf as to be unable to hear a lorry or truck on the street to being able to maintain a conversation,” Mr Rivolta said.

“What we have shown here is functional recovery using human stem cells, which is unique.”

Gerbils were selected for the test because their hearing range is similar to that of humans.