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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

A digitalized image of a stem cell near hair follicles
From Scientific American:

Over the past few months, we have been flooded with emails from distressed parents asking whether their deaf child will be able to hear one day.

With each new email comes a poignant story about a child whose world is silent. It is estimated that hearing loss affects 11% of school age children and even mild loss may adversely influence school performance, cognitive development and language acquisition. The most common type of hearing loss, sensorineural, is the result of injury to the hair cells of the inner ear’s Organ of Corti, most commonly due to infections, medication, noise and aging.

Hair cells are mechano-transducers which convert sound energy received from the outer and middle ear structures into an electrical signal which is then transmitted by the cochlear nerve to the brain. If enough of a human’s 17,000 hair cells are damaged, then sufficient sound energy cannot be transmitted to the brain, and the result is hearing loss. While birds and reptiles replace damaged hair cells, mammals normally do not.

Although hearing aids and cochlear implants, the two main treatment modalities for sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), have helped millions with impaired hearing around the globe, these devices do not restore or repair hearing. The idea of a cure has long been a dream for many parents of deaf children and the professionals who work with them. The sad reality, however, is that SNHL is currently considered irreversible. With the emergence of regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy, however, that dream may at last be within reach.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved our groundbreaking trial to evaluate the safety of using a child’s own cord blood stem cells to regenerate damaged cells in the inner ear and potentially restore the child’s hearing. This trial builds on Dr. Baumgartner’s prior success treating traumatic brain injury (TBI) with stem cells, and encouraging pre-clinical data from Italy showing that cochlear damage in mice may be repaired by transplantation of human umbilical cord hematopoietic stem cells (HSC).

In the mouse study, researchers administered HSC intravenously to a mammalian mouse model in which permanent hearing loss had been induced by ototoxic medication, noise or both. Hair cell regeneration and repair of the Organ of Corti was only observed in mice that received HSC transplants. This experiment provided a proof of concept for our trial by suggesting that under certain conditions, mammals, like birds and reptiles, could replace their damaged hair cells.

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