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New therapies to reverse or reduce hearing loss may be developed following the production of an epigenetic map of the inner ear.
The 'map' displays the methylation - the range and structure of genes involved in the development of the ear - and has been developed by a team at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, led by vice dean of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine Professor Karen Avraham.
Her team's research, carried out in collaboration with doctoral student Ofer Yizhar-Barnea and colleagues at the University of Washington, US and the Fondazione Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy was published in a study in the journal Scientific Reports last month.
Prof Avraham said: "Our analysis of the DNA methylation dynamics revealed a large number of new genes that are critical for the development of the inner ear and the onset of hearing itself.
"Instead of looking at one gene at a time, we employed sophisticated genomic technologies to examine all the genes in one snapshot. This allowed us to have a genome-wide view of the regulatory dynamics of the inner ear as a whole."
She explained that epigenetic signals halt the re-growth of inner ear hair cells, which are crucial for hearing. In most people, these gradually die off and do not re-grow, leading to hearing decline as part of the ageing process. For younger people, therapies that promote their growth or re-growth by altering the epigenetic process to boost their hearing capacities.
While epigenetics does not change DNA, it alters how DNA is read and any therapy would work by changing the way it reads signals concerning inner ear hair cells.
The professor said such a therapy may even "reawaken" the genes that are stopping inner ear hair regeneration from occurring.
It may be some time before effective therapies can be developed, however, which means audiologists will be working with conventional therapies and aids for some time yet.
Written by James Puckle
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