Potential Marker Found for Stem Cell Population in the Inner Ear

Hearing loss is common as we get older. Presbycusis or age-related hearing loss results from the progressive death of sensory cells in the cochlea. Wouldn’t it be great if a stem cell population in the inner ear replaced these dying auditory sensory cells?

As it turns out, a stem cell population might exist in the mammalian inner ear and researchers from the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center have identified a polysialylated glycoprotein that regulates neurodevelopment and is on the surface of cells in the adult inner ear. This glycoprotein acts as a marker of early cells in the inner ear and allows researchers to identify immature cells in the inner ear. This discovery was published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications and potentially opens the door to developing stem cell replacement treatments in the inner ear to treat certain hearing disorders.

“Hearing loss is a complex process and is usually regarded as irreversible,” said Frederic A. Troy II, principal investigator of the study from the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Finding this molecule in the inner ear that is known to be associated with early development may change that view.”

The existence of a marker for immature stem cells could make it possible to isolate neural stem cells from the adult inner ear in those people who suffer from hearing loss, culture and expand these cells in the laboratory, and then re-introduce them back into the inner ear as functioning neurons. These implanted cells might recolonize and establish themselves and improve hearing.

During development, certain glycoproteins (carbohydrate-protein linked molecules) are expressed on cell surfaces and serve critical functions essential to the normal growth and organization of the nervous system. One member of the class of cell-surface glycoproteins is an unusual molecule called polysialic acid or polySia. The large size of polySia allows it to fill spaces between cells and its strong electric charge repels other molecules. Therefore, polySia prevents cells from adhering or attaching to one another and thereby promotes cell movement to other areas.


Neural cell adhesion molecules (NCAMs) are also expressed on neuronal cell surfaces. As their name suggests, NCAMs help cells stick together and stay put. However, when NCAMs become modified with polysialic acid (or becomes “polysialylated”), the cells no longer adhere to other cells and are induced to migrate to new areas. Re-expression of the “anti-adhesive” polySia glycan on the surface of many adult human cancer cells facilitates their detachment, which enhances their metastatic spread.

Neural stem cells with these polySia-NCAMs on their cell surfaces play very important roles during embryonic development because these cells are able to travel throughout the body and differentiate into specialized cells. During adulthood, neural stem cells with polySia-NCAMs may migrate to injured areas and promote healing.

“The landscape of the cell surface of developing cells is decorated with a bewildering array of informational-rich sugar-protein molecules of which polysialylated NCAMs are of chief importance,” explained Troy. “During the life of a cell, these surface molecules are critical to cellular proliferation, self-renewal, differentiation and survival—essential processes for normal embryonic development and tissue regeneration in adults.”

It was already well-known that polySia-NCAM-expressing cells exist in the central nervous system, but Troy’s study is the first to document that they are also in the peripheral nervous system, and specifically in the spiral ganglia, those cluster of nerve cells in the inner ear that are essential to hearing.

Working with adult cells isolated from the inner ear spiral ganglia of guinea pigs, Troy and his team showed that these spiral ganglia cells expressed both polySia and NCAM. The polySia component was abundantly present on neural stem cells but was markedly reduced on mature cells. This implies that the polySia-NCAM complex is present on immature cells and can serve as a biomarker to identify these immature cells.

“Finding polySia-NCAM—a functional biomarker that modulates neuronal differentiation—on adult inner ear neural stem cells after differentiation gives researchers a ‘handle’ to identify and isolate these cells from among the many cells taken from a patient,” said Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the university’s Institute for Regenerative Cures. “This discovery will enhance research into spiral ganglion neurons and may bring treatments closer to patients with hearing deficits.”

Lead author Park Kyoung Ho, a professor at Catholic University College of Medicine in Seoul, Korea, initiated the research for this article while on sabbatical leave in Troy’s laboratory at UC Davis. With his colleague and co-author, Yeo Sang Won, he is now planning clinical trials, based on the findings, in Korea with individuals who suffer from hearing disorders.

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).