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Discovery of inner ear cells may lead to new therapies for deafness and inner ear disorders

Hearing loss and vestibular disorders can be debilitating to affected individuals, with symptoms ranging in severity from modest difficulty with speech comprehension to profound deafness, tinnitus, or dizziness. Hearing loss is the most prevalent chronic disease of the elderly, affecting more than one-third of people over 65 years of age. In most cases, hearing loss is caused by degeneration of the inner ear’s sensory receptor cells or “hair cells.”

A research team led by Stefan Heller, a principal investigator at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary’s Eaton-Peabody Laboratory and assistant professor at the Department of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School, has discovered a new population of stem cells that reside in the inner ear of adult mice. Huawei Li, a postdoctoral associate of the laboratory, found that these cells give rise to new hair cells in the culture dish, as well as after transplantation into embryonic inner ears of laboratory animals. The combination of these two discoveries could eventually lead to new hope for some people who suffer from hearing loss.

“The generation of new hair cells from a renewable source is the first step towards the development of new treatment options for human deafness,” Heller said. “Our immediate future goal is to test whether stem cell-derived hair cells can functionally restore hearing in deaf animals. Ultimately, working in conjunction with Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary clinicians, we aim to develop therapeutic applications for stem cell-based therapy for inner ear disorders.”

Heller and Li’s results will be published in the October issue of Nature Medicine and are available online at