In mammals, hearing loss is usually due to damage to the sound-sensing hair cells in the inner ear.
Originally, the hair cells were thought to be irreplaceable, but research in mice has shown that the supporting cells that provide structural support to the hair cells can turn into hair cells. If this technology can be applied in older animals, then it might provide a way to stimulate hair cell replacement in adults and treatments for deafness as a result of hair cell loss.
According to Albert Edge of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, hair cell replacement definitely occurs, but does so as rather low levels. According to Edge: “The finding that newborn hair cells regenerate spontaneously is novel.”
Earlier work has shown that inhibition of the Notch signaling pathway increases the formation of new hair cells not from remaining hair cells but from nearby supporting cells that express a cell-surface protein called Lgr5.
When Edge and his team used small molecules to inhibit the Notch signaling pathway, even more support cells differentiated into hair cells, and the Lgr-5-expressing cells were the only supporting cells that differentiated under these conditions.
By combining these new findings about Lgr-5-expressing cells with the previous finding that Notch inhibition can regenerate hair cells, scientists should be able to design new hair cell regeneration strategies to treat hearing loss and deafness.
Fish and birds are able to regenerate their hearing after damage, but mammals are not able to do so, and hearing loss is irreversible in mammals like human beings. However, a new study has shown that the application of a particular drug can activate genes normally expressed during hair cell development. This work resulted from collaboration between researchers at Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and Keio University School of Medicine in Japan. This finding is a first in the field or regenerative medicine.
In the cochlea, small cells known as hair cells convert sound waves into electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain into sounds. If these hair cells are damaged or destroyed by acoustic injury, then a permanent loss of hearing ensues. Such damage is treated with cochlear implants, which are surgically implanted devices that convert sounds to electrical signals.
“Cochlear implants are very successful and have helped a lot of people, but there’s a general feeling among clinicians, scientists, and patients that a biological repair would be preferable,” said Albert Edge, an otologist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and lead author of the Neuron paper that reports these findings.
In previous work, Edge and his colleagues had shown that inhibiting the Notch signaling pathway was important for hair cells to form properly during fetal development (Jeon, S.J., Fujioka, M., Kim, S.C., and Edge, A.S.B. (2011). Notch signaling alters sensory or neuronal cell fate specification of inner ear stem cells. J. Neurosci. 31, 8351–8358). In their new study, Edge and his colleagues inhibited the Notch signaling pathway to determine, if such inhibition could initiate hair cell regeneration in adult mammals. They used a variety of approaches. In their first experiments, they used different inhibitors to determine their effects on isolated ear tissues. This allowed them to isolate one inhibitor in particular, the ɣ-secretase inhibitor LY411575, that led to increased expression of several molecular markers found in developing hair cells.
“It was quite a surprise,” said Edge. “We were very excited when we saw that a secretase inhibitor would have any effect at all in an adult animal.”
Next, Edge and his co-workers tested the inhibitor in mice that had hearing damage and reduced hair cell populations as a result of exposure to a loud noise. They tagged cells in the inner ear to follow their fate and discovered that the inhibitor, when applied to the inner ears of the mice, caused supporting cells to differentiate into replacement hair cells. These newly formed hair cells partially restored hearing at low sound frequencies, but not at higher frequencies. This effect lasted for at least three months.
This study examined the effect of the inhibitor when it was given one day after noise damage, which is a time when Notch signaling is naturally increased. This it is possible that a small window of time exists after an acoustic injury during which the drug is effective.
Edge concluded: “The improvement we saw is modest. So we’re now looking at variations of the approach and whether we can use the same drug to treat other types of hearing loss.”
See: Mizutari K, Fujioka M, Hosoya M, Bramhall N, et al. (2013) Notch Inhibition Induces Cochlear Hair Cell Regeneration and Recovery of Hearing after Acoustic Trauma. Neuron 77, 58-69.