Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - Furry fix could be first step towards human deafness cure

Gerbils may prove the unlikely starting point for a cure for human deafness, scientific research has found.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 14 September

Furry fix could be first step towards human deafness cure

Gerbils may prove the unlikely starting point for a cure for human deafness, scientific research has found.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have made a major breakthrough by restoring hearing in the animal by replacing damaged cells in the inner ear.

The cells were created from human stem cells mixed with chemicals which created cells similar to spiral ganglion neurons – the nerves which help animals hear. The neurons were then injected into the inner ear of 18 deaf gerbils.

After 10 weeks an average of 45 per cent of the gerbils’ hearing range was restored. In humans the improvement would mean people who previously could not hear traffic would be able to hear a conversation. Gerbils were selected for the test because, unlike mice and other small mammals, they have a similar hearing range to humans.

Marcelo N. Rivolta, reader in sensory stem cell biology at Sheffield and leader of the research project, said: “We believe this is a substantial step forward. It represents the ‘proof of concept’ that stem cells, in particular human embryonic stem cells, can be used to repair the deaf ear.”

However, he added that more research work was still needed before the process could be applied to humans. “We want to understand in greater detail how this repair process takes place, so a clinical application is several years down the road.

“We hope it will lead, sometime in the future, to offer a therapeutic solution to some of those patients that at the moment have no hope to hear again.”

The aim of the research was to find a cure for auditory neuropathy, a currently-incurable form of deafness suffered by 1 in 8 people with severe hearing loss. The condition causes the cells and nerves that aid hearing to die.

Questions for discussion

For primary:

  • Do you have a gerbil or any other pets at home?
  • Can you think of any other animals that help humans?

For secondary:

  • What is your opinion on animal testing for medical purposes? Is it acceptable when human lives can be improved?
  • Why might people object to the use of stem cells? What ethical issues need to be considered?

Related resources


  • Try this video from Teachers TV exploring hearing and the ear.

Ear image

  • Look inside the ear with this diagram and labelling activity.

Protecting hearing

  • Get students designing ear protectors with this practical cross-curriculum task.

Deaf awareness

  • Help students understand deafness and support those with hearing impairments with this collection of resources.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

The Rugby Football Union – the governing body for the sport in England – has appointed its first fulltime elite education officer, and charged the teacher with making some of the country’s biggest schoolboys do their homework.

Archaeologists today unveiled a “stunning find” that may put to rest a 500-year-old mystery surrounding the final resting place of Richard III.

Andy Murray marked the end of a superlative summer for British sport by becoming the first male British tennis player to win a Grand Slam since 1936.

A film launched for World Suicide Prevention Day featuring testimonials from a variety of men and women who have experienced suicidal feelings in the past.

In the news archive index