Can Stem Cells Cure Hearing Loss?

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Can a hearing loss cure be found in something as simple as the blood from a child’s umbilical cord?

In January 2014, researchers began the first FDA-approved trial to evaluate the safety of using a child’s umbilical cord blood to regenerate cells in the inner ear and restore hearing.

The yearlong study involves ten children with profound hearing loss who will be infused with their own cord blood stem cells. These cells remain in the umbilical cord after birth and are given to patients in a procedure similar to a blood transfusion.
Dr. Samer Fakhri, Principal Investigator of the trial and a surgeon at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, says research into stem cells and their ability to improve hearing is still in an early phase.

“We do not have evidence in humans to support the clinical use of stem cells in hearing loss. That is why such trials are important,” he says.

Animal study success

Results from pre-clinical animal studies showed that human stem cell infusions can significantly affect animals with hearing loss. A 2008 study by UK researchers showed that in the mice that received human stem cell infusions, the organ of Corti was almost completely reorganized back to normal, while those mice that did not receive the infusion had significant hair cell loss and disruption in the organ of Corti.

Fakhri’s trial is classified as Phase 1, meaning that it is at the beginning phase of the United States regulatory process. There are three more phases of trials and the process could take years.

Should you store your child’s stem cells?

With increased attention on stem cell research, several businesses now offer cord blood banking services to new parents. These “banks” remove and store the cord blood in case the child will need his/her own stem cells later in life.

According to the American Pregnancy Association’s website, “banking a baby’s blood and stem cells in a cord blood bank is a type of insurance. Ideally, you will not need to access your baby’s stem cells in order to address a medical problem. But using a cord blood bank can provide peace of mind knowing that you have a valuable resource if you need it.”

While there aren’t any risks involved in banking cord blood, it comes at a significant price. The procedure and storage fees can cost thousands of dollars.

If studies do show a benefit, these cells could prove priceless, but Fakhri says more research and time will be needed before all infant cord blood is banked.

“At this point we cannot provide a strong recommendation for it, and it is something that should be decided by parents,” he says. “It is expensive to store cord blood and the likelihood of using stem cells in any individual is very low. However, when needed it is very valuable.”

RL Deane