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By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
Humans are born with only 15,000 cochlear hair cells. When these are destroyed by noise they don’t regenerate, unlike cochlear hair cells in other animals, such as chickens. If a way can be found to regenerate human cochlear hair cells, perhaps hearing can be restored.
A recent report from Harvard and MIT holds promise for treating hearing loss in the future. Researchers there were able to increase the number of stem cells from mouse cochlear hair cells in vitro using a cocktail of small-molecule chemicals. It’s hard to do basic science research on humans–one can’t hurt people doing research–but mice share 99% of our genetic material, and being small and inexpensive, they are good substitutes in the lab. The researchers hope to begin testing their approach in humans in 18 months.
This is great news for millions of Americans with hearing loss. It’s possible that with additional advances, one day their hearing could be restored. But I have one problem with the report: The researchers are developing a treatment, probably not an inexpensive one, for a problem that is entirely preventable.
The public health mantra is that prevention is always better and cheaper than treatment, which in turn is better and cheaper than rehabilitation. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is 100% preventable. How? Avoid loud noise. If you can’t avoid noise exposure, use hearing protection (earplugs and ear muff hearing protective devices). You can find these in your drugstore, in “big box” home improvement stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s, or online. There is even an online retailer devoted only to hearing protection.
So kudos to the researchers at Harvard and MIT. No doubt their work and the work of other researchers will eventually help the millions of Americans who already suffer from hearing loss and other hearing damage. But let’s put time, money, and effort in promoting a cheaper and safer approach to hearing health–prevention. No more research is needed, and we can avoid hearing loss today.