Stem cells used to create inner ear
In what could be a major breakthrough, researchers from Indiana University have transformed mouse embryonic stem cells into key structures of the inner ear. Using a three-dimensional cell culture method, the researchers coaxed the stem cells to develop into inner-ear sensory epithelia, which contain hair cells, supporting cells and neurons. These are the parts of the ear that detect sound, head movement and gravity.
In previous attempts to create inner ear cells, the Indiana scientists didn’t succeed due to the use of flat cell-culture dishes. However, in this experiment, they suspended cells in a specialized culture medium, which created a more natural environment. This three-dimensional modeling also provided mechanical clues, including how the cells have tension and pull on one another. Using the three-dimensional model, the cells self-organized into complex tissues that mimic changes during embryonic development.
Though additional studies are needed to determine how these inner-ear cells are involved in auditory sensing--and the model needs to be recreated using human cells--the research opens the door to a better understanding of inner ear development and creates a new method by which other organs could be created. It could also advance treatments for both hearing loss and balance disorders.