In recent years a number of research groups have been investigating ways to restore the hair cells lost in some forms of deafness. Here is the latest example of success in laboratory mice:
Hair cell loss results from a variety of factors including noise exposure, aging, toxins, infections, and certain antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. Although hearing aids and cochlear implants can ameliorate the symptoms somewhat, there are no known treatments to restore hearing, because auditory hair cells in mammals, unlike those in birds or fish, do not regenerate once lost.
[Here, researchers] demonstrate for the first time that hair cells can be regenerated in an adult mammalian ear by using a drug to stimulate resident cells to become new hair cells, resulting in partial recovery of hearing in mouse ears damaged by noise trauma. This finding holds great potential for future therapeutic application that may someday reverse deafness in humans.
The drug had been selected for its ability to generate hair cells when added to stem cells isolated from the ear. It acted by inhibiting an enzyme called gamma-secretase that activates a number of cellular pathways. The drug applied to the cochlea inhibited a signal generated by a protein called Notch on the surface of cells that surround hair cells. These supporting cells turned into new hair cells upon treatment with the drug. Replacing hair cells improved hearing in the mice, and the improved hearing could be traced to the areas in which supporting cells had become new hair cells.