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Stem cell injections could bring back hearing, but also cancer

Tuesday 14th November 2017
Scientists from Rutgers University have found a way to potentially restore hearing function using inner ear stem cell injections. Image: scyther5 via iStock
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US scientists have found a way to potentially reverse hearing loss by injecting stem cells into the inner ear, but it could have extreme adverse side effects, including increasing the risk of cancer, presenting audiologists with something of a double-edged sword.

Researchers based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick found that injecting stem cells into the inner ear of patients who were deaf or hard-of-hearing could help to restore their hearing function.

The team has found a way to convert the stem cells into auditory neurons, which allow hearing function to be restored, but this does carry a risk of the cells dividing too quickly. As a result, this could lead to the development of cancer - something the researchers need to work out how to avoid, or it's likely that people will prefer to live with their hearing loss than put themselves at risk of cancer.

The team has found a way to control this multiplication of cells, by turning the stem cells into auditory neurons in a petri dish, but they now need to find out how this can be replicated in the inner ear itself, where scientists have less control.

For this shift in the cells to be possible, doctors need to overexpress a gene known as NEUROG1, which the study authors found could be influenced by chromatin. Changes in chromatin levels could help to stop the stem cells multiplying at an unwanted and potentially dangerous rate, so the next area of research needs to focus on these in order to eliminate the risk of cancer completely.

Kelvin Y Kwan, lead author of the study, said: "It's a cautionary tale. People say, 'we'll just put stem cells in and we're going to replace lost neurons'.

"We're saying that 'yes, we can make neurons', but you have other side effects that are unanticipated, such as increased proliferation of stem cells. So this will guide us toward a better strategy for cell replacement therapies."

Written by James Puckle

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