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 on Wednesday the experiment was an important proof of concept, marking a further advance in the growing field of regenerative medicine.
Marcelo Rivolta from Britain's 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". After treating 18 gerbils with complete deafness in one ear, his team reported in the journal Nature that stem cells produced an average 46 percent recovery in hearing function, as measured by electrical signals in the animals' brains. "If this was a human patient, it would mean going from being so deaf to being able to maintain a conversation," Rivolta told reporters.
Gerbils were selected for the test because their hearing range is similar to that of humans, while mice - the usual choice for laboratory tests - hear at higher frequencies.