For a while I have been working on the idea that we will one day be able to repair deafness – which is a universal problem for all those over the age of 75. In fact you can find some kind of hearing loss in anyone over the age of 55 if you look hard enough.
The market for a cure for deafness is huge.
In Nature this month there is a report by Neil Segil and colleagues at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles – University of Southern California – in which they show they have made new hair cells from adult stem cells in the inner ear.
These cells have turned off production of a protein p27. This offers a possible drug route to cure deafness, by blocking the p27 system and encouraging these cells to develop into new hair cells.
The work was done in culture but is still very exciting.
This is not the first time that scientists have explored ear cell regeneration.
It is becoming clear from many different studies that repair of the retina, inner ear, spinal cord, heart or brain will one day be relatively easy.
The challenge for the future of the pharmaceutical industry will be to be able to develop a drug which can encourage these cell-based transformations without removing cells in any way. Watch this space – many different teams in biotech companies are actively developing solutions along these lines.