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The First Recipe for Cooking Up Functional Hair Cells from Stem Cells

Hair cells grown from mouse embryonic stem cells display their characteristic stereocilia. Credit: S. Heller and K. Oshima

Hair cells grown from mouse embryonic
stem cells display their characteristic
stereocilia.
Credit: S. Heller and K. Oshima

Each of our ears harbors only 15,000 hair cells, the tiny sensory cells in the cochlea that turn sound vibrations into electrical signals. Once they are damaged or die, we are unable to make new ones. Losing them, even only a thousand or so, means losing hearing ability. Scientists have always been frustrated by their scarcity and how difficult it is to extract them from the ear, and these issues have hindered experimentation. Now, thanks to research funded by the NIDCD and conducted by Stefan Heller, Ph.D., and a group of colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists have a way to grow abundant numbers of functional inner ear hair cells using embryonic mouse stem cells and a combination of growth-inducing substances. The findings bring the scientists closer to achieving two main goals. Short range, their goal is to grow large numbers of working hair cells for further research. Long range, they hope to use what they discover to restore the ear’s ability to regenerate hair cells. According to lead researcher Heller, “It’s like having an ear in a test-tube.” Read more on the NIDCD website. The study is published in Cell.

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