Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a group of progenitor cells in the inner ear that can become the sensory hair cells and adjacent supporting cells that enable hearing. Studying these progenitor cells could someday lead to discoveries that help millions of Americans suffering from hearing loss due to damaged or impaired sensory hair cells.
“It’s well known that, in mammals, these specialized sensory cells don’t regenerate after damage,” said Alan Cheng, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology. “Identifying the progenitor cells, and the cues that trigger them to become sensory cells, will allow us to better understand not just how the inner ear develops, but also how to devise new ways to treat hearing loss and deafness.”
The inner ear is a highly specialized structure for gathering and transmitting vibrations in the air. The auditory compartment, the cochlea, houses specialized cells with hair-like projections that sense vibration. These hair cells, responsible for hearing and balance, are surrounded by supporting cells that are also critical for hearing.
Twenty percent of all Americans, and up to 33 percent of those ages 65-74, suffer from hearing loss. Hearing aids and cochlear implants are helpful, but neither address the cause: the loss of hair cells in the inner ear. Cheng and his colleagues identified a class of cells called tympanic border cells that can give rise to hair cells and the cells that support them during a phase of cochlear maturation right after birth.
Cheng recently received a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to study the limited regeneration of the same sensory hair cells in the vestibular system of the inner ear, which helps us balance. Lessons learned there may also translate into aid for patients with hearing loss.
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