What if doctors could grow a new working inner ear from a person’s own skin cells? Or repair the damaged inner ear from within?
Solving this profound mystery is the driving force behind stem cell research and the promise of tissue engineering in otolaryngology. While hearing aids and cochlear implants can provide good recovery of hearing function, the development of a biological method to repair the damaged cochlea has the potential to restore normal hearing without any type of prosthesis.
One approach to restore hearing might be to surgically place stem cells within the cochlea in such a way that they would fuse with the remaining cochlear structures and develop and function as hair cells. Scientists believe this is a viable approach because, unlike most organs that are destroyed by disease, the inner ear remains structurally intact—only the hair cells are lost. By mimicking the steps involved in the formation of embryonic mouse ears, Stanford scientists have produced stem cells in the laboratory that look and act very much like hair cells, the sensory cells that normally reside in the inner ear. If they can generate hair cells in the millions, it could lead to significant scientific and clinical advances along the path to curing deafness in the future.
A promising source of creating hair cells comes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS)—adult cells, taken for example from a patient’s own skin that have been genetically reprogrammed to revert back to stem cells. This breakthrough process represents a major opportunity to eventually treat a patient with his or her own cells.
Currently, our research team is working toward producing human hair cells for the first time in a culture dish. This work could lead, in the long run, to novel therapies based on cell transplantation.
Equally exciting is an ongoing approach to use embryonic stem cell-based approaches for discovery of novel drugs that could be used for treatment for deafness. More about this exciting new direction can be found under Molecular Therapy.