Stem cell trial for hearing loss

US researchers have begun a groundbreaking trial to test the potential of umbilical cord blood transplants, a kind of stem cell therapy, to treat and possibly reverse hearing loss in infants.

The phase I trial follows promising studies on mice showing that such transplants were able to rebuild the structures of the inner ear, and some anecdotal evidence from humans, sparking hope of a cure for some forms of deafness.

One of those people is two-year-old Finn McGrath, who suffered brain damage after being deprived of oxygen during a prolonged and complicated delivery, according to his mother, Laura.

“His doctors told us he was at high risk for cerebral palsy, vision issues, hearing problems and mental retardation,” she said in an interview with AFP.

Finn’s early days were an all-out struggle to survive, so for his parents, learning that he had failed his hearing tests and had damaged hair cells—the sensory receptors in the inner ear that pick up sounds—was almost an afterthought.

As his parents searched for ways to help him, they came upon stories online that told of studies using cord blood to help children with cerebral palsy and other disorders.

Prior to his birth, the McGraths had arranged to privately bank his umbilical cord blood, a procedure that costs around $2,000 plus storage fees, and remains controversial among pediatricians.

Private companies such as the Cord Blood Registry, which is funding the Texas study on hearing loss, urge expecting parents to bank their umbilical cord blood and reserve it for personal use as a way to protect their family. Since Finn's parents had already banked his, they enrolled him in cord blood trial for cerebral palsy in North Carolina and he received his first transplant in November 2009 when he was about seven weeks old.A second transfusion followed and by May, his parents began to notice a change.

Nighttime noises, like an alarm on his food pump or the sound of ripping medical tape, would suddenly startle him awake, his mother recalled.

"He started vocalising sounds and we could tell that he was anticipating things that we would say. Like, if he had heard a story a number of times or a song, he would smile like he recognized the song or the story."

Finn had a third infusion in September 2010, when he was one year old. Four months later, an otoacoustic emissions test, which plays a sound and picks up vibrations in the cochlea and hair cells, came back normal.

The early hearing tests that showed hearing loss were not exactly the same as the later tests that came back normal, so McGrath is cautious about comparing them directly, but she believes the cord blood transfusions may have helped.

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