Hearing loss, which affects 360 million people worldwide, often worsens with age. Recently, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts Eye and Ear discovered a potential way to address one of the primary causes of hearing loss.
Inner ear sensory cells (also called hair cells) detect sound and send signals to the brain. Humans are born with a finite number of sensory hair cells in each cochlea – the hearing part of the inner ear. Over time, loud noises and medications can destroy these cells, which do not regenerate on their own in humans.
“We know that birds and amphibians are able to restore hair cells throughout their lives, so we set out to explore whether, with treatment, this could be possible for humans as well,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Karp, a biomedical engineer and researcher in the Department of Medicine.
“This study is an excellent example of the work that is possible in regenerative medicine.”
Using their knowledge of cells that regenerate quickly, like those in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, researchers in the study treated cochlear-supporting cells with medications designed to stimulate pathways for regeneration. The result was an enormous increase in progenitor cells (cells that can differentiate into defined types of cells), which created bonafide new hair cells in large quantities. Based on these findings, a therapy for chronic hearing loss is in development by Frequency Therapeutics and is expected to be available for clinical use within 12 to 18 months.
“This study is an excellent example of the work that is possible in regenerative medicine,” says Dr. Karp.