Stem Cells May Be Key To Deafness Cure

In a dusty, cluttered lab at Stanford University, a team of young scientists is on a quest. Curing deafness is the goal, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin, and Stefan Heller says stem cells hold the key.

Heller and his entire team were recruited away from Harvard, and they've made a breakthrough discovery: They've found that stem cells have the capacity to regenerate in the inner ear.

The stem cells are especially good at growing into the microscopic hair cells that make hearing possible.

"It's like a little microphone in your ear," Heller says of the hair cells, "and when the microphones go bad, then you don't hear anymore. We can grow these tiny microphones from these stem cells."

Heller and his colleagues have figured out how to inject stem cells into the ears of mouse embryos and watch them grow. Their next step is to try it in live mice.

"I hope that in five years, we are at a point that we can say that it is possible to cure deafness, at least in an animal," Heller says. "That will be the first step toward treating human patients."

There are an estimated 28 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many of them get by with hearing aids and surgically implanted cochlear implants. But Heller and his team believe that stem cells have the potential to eliminate even the best technology we have.

"So what you're saying is if we can restore something to its natural state, why not?" asks Kaledin.

"Why not," responds Heller. "Exactly."