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Scientists Identify the Master Switch for Creating Ear Hair Cells

In a piece of recent news, scientists have the master switch to ear cell programming that can fix hearing loss.

Master Switch to Ear Cell Programming

Scientists who are studying the mechanisms behind deafness have identified a single gene (which they describe as a master switch for cell differentiation) opening up exciting new possibilities around the restoration of hearing. The discovery is claimed to overcome a major hurdle in the field and lays the basis for therapies that tackle a common cause of irreversible hearing loss.

The study focuses on ear hair cells, which are sensory cells that line the inner ear and are fundamental to our sense of hearing. The death of these cells due to aging and stresses like excessive noise leads to irreversible deterioration of hearing, and for this reason, these hair cells are a key focus for scientists pursuing regenerative forms of treatments.

2020 marked an advance in this area with scientists zeroing in on a single protein that can determine whether embryonic hair cells mature in a healthy manner or develop into something else. The hope is that this knowledge can lead to treatments that regenerate the vital hair cells and restore hearing, and this new study follows a similar line of thinking.

Generating Artificial Hair Cells

The research actually centers on the different roles inner and outer hair cells play in hearing and the gene that dictates the creation of one over the other. Through experiments on mice, the scientists have landed on what they describe as a master regulator of inner versus outer hair cell differentiation. Called TBX2, the team found when the gene was expressed ear hair cells became inner hair cells, and when the gene was blocked they became hair cells of the outer variety.

Scientists have previously demonstrated an ability to generate artificial hair cells, but not an ability to differentiate them into inner or outer cells. To actually flip the switch uncovered in this research, the scientists would need to come up with a gene cocktail to reprogram other cells, with the structural support cells latticed throughout the hair cells in the ear among the prime candidates.

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