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Vision of Hope for the Hearing Impaired

MOUNT ROYAL, N.J. -- A vision of hope for millions of hearing impaired people around the world was the focus of this year's Midwinter Meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO). During the meeting, Dr. James Battey, the Director of the National Institute for Deafness and other Communication Disorders, stated "there has never been a greater opportunity for research to make an impact on our understanding of human disease in the area of otolaryngology than at this time". This message was reiterated in nearly 1,000 contributed papers.

Studies reported attempts to implant stem cells into the tissues of the inner ear and to rescue auditory neurons from programmed death, a suicidal process known as apoptosis whereby cells die in response to internal, genome directed cues. This process is thought by some to underlie certain neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Edwin Rubel, known as a pioneer in sensory cell regeneration in the inner ear, underscored the importance of understanding the molecular signals that control the death and survival of brain cells, saying, "From this work, we will have in hand the biochemical tools necessary to protect brain cells from their untimely and unwelcome death due to hearing loss. Together with the ability to biochemically trigger the regeneration of hair cells [the sensory cells of hearing] and the present ability to provide a workable alternative through cochlear implants, we hope to see major clinical benefits derive from this research in the next two decades."

Along the same optimistic line, Dr. Allen Ryan of the University of California at San Diego, reported that "in the future, it might be possible to replace sensory cells or sensory neurons [in damaged ears] through the genetic engineering of stem cells".

While the research areas represented were wide-ranging, the genetic basis of deafness, the molecular biology and neurobiology of hearing and balance, and cochlear implants dominated the itinerary. Dr. Karen Kirk, widely known for her work on cochlear implants, noted tremendous progress is being made in the area stating, "children [with a cochlear implant] before 2 years of age develop language faster than children implanted later." This is a finding that provides much needed hope to the parents of profoundly deaf infants around the world.

For a more detailed report, visit www.aro.org or contact ARO Executive Offices.

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