48 million people in Arizona and across the United States have irreversible hearing loss, but this has not stopped researchers from searching for a cure. New studies in the field of stem cell research, while controversial, provide hope for a future cure for those with hearing loss.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Tucson and Green Valley residents of all ages can develop hearing loss; while often viewed as a sign of aging, in reality only one-third of Americans with hearing loss are over the age of 65. When the hair cells in the cochlea degenerate, they do not grow back; many factors can cause this. Aside from aging, hearing loss can occur as a result of noise exposure, illness and disease, accidents or injury, ototoxic medications, malformation of the inner ear, and tumors. The vast majority of patients – 90 percent – experience sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be cured. Instead, they usually find help from hearing aids.
How Can Stem Cells Help?
Hearing aids are a great boon to hearing loss patients in Arizona, helping them to communicate more effectively and improving their quality of life. Hearing aids provide amplification, allowing the patient to hear more clearly, but it’s important to remember they are not a cure.
The ultimate goal for scientists is developing a way to regenerate the hair cells in the cochlea, a process that could reverse hearing loss and provide a long-term cure for patients. It is their hope that stem cells surgically placed into the cochlea might fuse with the existing cochlear structures and function as new hair cells. Progress has been made at Stanford, where scientists have successfully produced stem cells in the lab that look like and function the same as hair cells in the inner ear. If they can replicate these results on a much larger scale – they would need to be able to create millions of new hair cells – then a cure for hearing loss might soon follow. Additionally, stem cells may be used to discover new medications that can effectively treat, or possibly even reverse, hearing loss. While early studies look promising, researchers caution that stem cell therapy may result in unintended serious side effects, such as an increased risk of cancer.
While it’s too early to tell whether stem cells will provide that magic cure for hearing loss, it’s giving researchers in the field hope that someday a hearing loss diagnosis won’t automatically mean an irreversible condition or require hearing aids.
Your Arizona audiologist can provide more information on this and other forms of research into hearing loss treatments.