Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a group of progenitor cells in the inner ear that can become the sensory hair cells and adjacent supporting cells that enable hearing. Studying these progenitor cells could someday lead to discoveries that help millions of Americans suffering from hearing loss due to damaged or impaired sensory hair cells.
"It's well known that, in mammals, these specialized sensory cells don't regenerate after damage," said Alan Cheng, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology. (In contrast, birds and fish are much better equipped: They can regain their sensory cells after trauma caused by noise or certain drugs.) "Identifying the progenitor cells, and the cues that trigger them to become sensory cells, will allow us to better understand not just how the inner ear develops, but also how to devise new ways to treat hearing loss and deafness."
The research will be published online Feb. 26 in Development. Cheng is the senior author. Former medical student Taha Jan, MD, and postdoctoral scholar Renjie Chai, PhD, share lead authorship of the study. Roel Nusse, PhD, a professor of developmental biology, is a co-senior author of the research.
The inner ear is a highly specialized structure for gathering and transmitting vibrations in the air. The auditory compartment, called the cochlea, is a snail-shaped cavity that houses specialized cells with hair-like projections that sense vibration, much like seaweed waving in the ocean current. These hair cells are responsible for both hearing and balance, and are surrounded by supporting cells that are also critical for hearing.
Twenty percent of all Americans, and up to 33 percent of those ages 65-74, suffer from hearing loss. Hearing aids and, in severe cases, cochlear implants can be helpful for many people, but neither address the underlying cause: the loss of hair cells in the inner ear. Cheng and his colleagues identified a class of cells called tympanic border cells that can give rise to hair cells and the cells that support them during a phase of cochlear maturation right after birth.
"Until now, these cells have had no clear function," said Cheng. "We used several techniques to define their behavior in cell culture dishes, as well as in mice. I hope these findings will lead to new areas of research to better understand how our ears develop and perhaps new ways to stimulate the regeneration of sensory cells in the cochlea."
Cheng recently received a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to study the limited regeneration of the same sensory hair cells that occur in a different region of the inner ear called the vestibular system, which helps us balance. Lessons learned there may also translate into aid for patients with hearing loss.