Gene therapy improves on ‘bionic ear’

By Monte Morin / Los Angeles Times

Published Apr 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

A procedure that uses a series of electric jolts to inject lab-designed DNA molecules into cells of the inner ear may help to regrow auditory nerves in people with profound hearing loss, according to researchers.

In a paper published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, Australian researchers said they used tiny electrodes and gene therapy to regenerate nerve cells in chemically deafened guinea pigs.

The procedure, they said, may one day improve the functioning of human cochlear implants — electronic devices that provide hearing sensations to the deaf.

“People with cochlear implants do well with understanding speech, but their perception of pitch can be poor, so they often miss out on the joy of music,” said senior author Gary Housley, a professor of neuroscience at the University of South Wales.

“Ultimately we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound,” Housley said in a prepared statement.

Housley and his colleagues studied the procedure on guinea pigs because the structure of their inner ear is similar to that of humans.

While cochlear implants help roughly 300,000 patients throughout the world to detect and interpret speech, researchers believe they can be improved if nerve cells are encouraged to grow closer to the electrode.