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MRC Harwell brings hearing loss therapy a step closer

New research from the Medical Research Council Harwell (MRC Harwell), published in Nature brings stem cell therapy a step closer as an option for treating hearing loss. Scientists based on Harwell Campus at the MRC, in collaboration with the University of Maryland, have discovered a key regulator that controls how a type of inner ear cell critical for hearing – called an outer hair cell – matures. This discovery could inform future research into developing stem cell therapy approaches to treat hearing loss.

The inner and outer hair cells are responsible for turning sounds into electrical impulses and transmitting them to the brain. When these cells are damaged or lost, they are unable to regenerate and hearing becomes impaired, such as in the case of age-related hearing loss. Because of this, potential therapies to restore hearing have been focused on understanding the genetic roadmap that dictates how these hair cells develop and mature, as this could help initiate their replacement using stem cell therapy.

Professor Steve Brown, one of the study authors and Director of MRC Harwell, commented: “The development of therapies for age-related hearing loss represents one of the big challenges facing medicine and biomedical science. Understanding the genetic programmes that are responsible for the development and maturation of sound-transducing hair cells within the inner ear will be critical to exploring avenues for the regeneration of these cells that are lost in abundance during age-related hearing loss.

“The teams from the University of Maryland and MRC Harwell have given us the first insights into that programme. They have identified a master regulator, Ikzf2/helios, that controls the programme for maturation of outer hair cells. Now we have a target that we can potentially use to induce the production of outer hair cells within damaged inner ears, and we are one step closer to offering treatments for this disabling condition.”

Currently one in six people in the UK are living with a hearing problem and that figure is set to rise, it is predicted by 2050 that more than 900 million people worldwide will suffer from some form of hearing loss. For those experiencing loss of hearing it can have a profoundly negative impact on their lives and the lives of those around them. Socially, people struggle joining in every day conversation with family and friends which can lead to feelings of isolation, and it can also threaten their ability to bring in an income if it impacts their ability to work.

MRC Harwell is a centre dedicated to genetics research and pioneering science to improve the health of people in the UK and around the world. The centre sits within the Harwell HealthTec Cluster, 1,000 people working across 40 organisations dedicated to world leading research, and the rapid acceleration of research through to commercial success across physical and life sciences.