A team of scientists have developed a simple and efficient method to generate inner ear hair cells — the cells responsible for our hearing and sense of balance. When these cells fail to regenerate, people suffer from permanent hearing and balance impairments. The finding is an important step for the future production of large numbers of these cells for use in cell transplantation therapies or large-scale drug screens.

“We explored various regulatory proteins that control hair cell development in the embryo to design an effective combination to induce the formation of these cells,” said Domingos Henrique from the Molecular Medicine Institute in Lisbon, Portugal. Along with researchers from University College London Ear Institute, Britain, Henrique and his team applied their approach to mouse embryonic stem cells in a dish which had the potential to become any cell type.

They were able to convert these cells into hair cells, more successfully and with higher efficiencies than previously reported. The researchers added the cells in the ear of a developing chick embryo. They were also able to induce the formation of many new hair cells, including in areas where they do not form normally, suggesting that a similar strategy might work humans. The team will now focus both on improving this method to produce fully mature hair cells and on applying the method to human cells that can be produced in large quantities.

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