Brussels, 15 Dec 2003
An EU funded consortium has been recognised for its pioneering work on new cures for deafness. The BIONIC EAR project is looking into ways of repairing the inner ear, in cases where hair cells are damaged by trauma, antibiotics or ageing, thus resulting in an irreversible hearing impairment.
Selected from a field of 1,340 candidates, the project was placed on a short list of top class research that was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in San Francisco on 12 December. Commenting on the project, EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: 'Every year, one European out of ten becomes deaf due to inner ear damage. This can be avoided, and the findings of the BIONIC EAR project are very promising [...]. The recognition of the potential of this research by the US and the international scientific community demonstrates that we are at the forefront in this and other scientific fields.'
Two of the project's partners, the Université de Montpellier II (France) and Stockholm's Karolinska Institute (Sweden), have been working on the replacement of damaged sensory hair cells and their connecting neurons. They have identified and isolated adult stem cells from vestibular sensory epithelia (VSE) in mice, which could be differentiated into new sensory hair cells. However, more research is needed, they say, to prove that these newly differentiated hair cells could efficiently replace damaged elements of the human inner ear.
It had previously been thought that sensory hair cells and their connecting neurons could not be replaced. However, growing reports on novel stem cell populations in the central nervous system prompted researchers on the BIONIC EAR project to look for stem cells in the inner ears of adult mice. The successful identification of these stem cells has gained widespread interest, leading the project partners to highlight work that they have already done on turning this and other knowledge into therapeutic applications.
In a promising development, the project partners have combined cell therapy and cochlear implants (an electronic device that directly stimulates the sensory neurons of the inner ear) in an animal model of pathological deafness. Their work indicates that electronic stimulation of cells in the inner ear could also help to tackle deafness.
The four year BIONIC EAR project was allocated 1.53 million euro under the Quality of Life priority of the EU's Fifth Framework Programme, and was presented by representatives of the European Commission at the ASCB meeting in San Francisco.
For further information on the thematic priority of life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), please visit: http://www.cordis.lu/lifescihealth/home. html