by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man wrote:
I read your article ‘Hair cell regeneration—looking beyond the hype’ which was very encouraging. Currently, my hearing has been severe to profound since age 13. I’m 48 now, but I’ve worn a hearing aid since I was three.
I am now in the process of undergoing a cochlear implant. In the meantime, I’m still researching other options to improve my hearing. I’ve heard or read a lot of negative things regarding cochlear implants such as equipment failure, increased tinnitus, loss of residual hearing, expensive, etc.
My doctor is confident I will benefit from the cochlear implant and that it should improve my hearing much better than currently. This is very encouraging. However, something is drawing me to hold off. I’m wondering if there is something better out there. It seems that stem cell therapy sounds more promising. I fear that I will regret having the cochlear implant when I should have been more patient and waited for the stem cell therapy.
I’ve read that other countries are performing clinical trials but none here in the USA—but I’m not sure if these reports are just hype or are real.
Would you care to give me your opinion on stem cell therapy. Perhaps I’m wasting my time thinking about the stem cell therapy?
I have written a couple of articles regarding hair cell regeneration. You mentioned my article “Hair Cell Regeneration”“Looking Beyond the Hype” (November, 2004). In addition I have written, “Hair Cell Regeneration”“Overcoming the Challenges” (November, 2004). As you have read, yes, research on hair cell regeneration by using stem cells is progressing, but no, it is not there yet.
There have been a few recent reports floating around the Internet of a college girl, Chloe Sohl, that had stem cell therapy with supposedly spectacular results. Here is one such report, “Stem cell therapy raises hope for autoimmune hearing loss“.
Another of these “reports” paints stem cell therapy as wonderful, and that it is the stodgy FDA that prevents it from happening in the USA right now. This report is entitled “Stem cells for deafness begins human trials? Great news!“.
These articles make it seem like stem cell therapy is already here and is working great. This is just not true. Yes, they are experimenting on people in countries where they don’t have strict medical standards, but the results are not all what they are glowingly painted to be. There are still serious side effects that need to be overcome. Before you get sucked in by all the hype, read the article “Dose of Reality: Beware of Clinics Touting Stem Cell Panaceas“.
So far, I’ve only heard of this one “success” story using stem cells to improve hearing—and the funny thing is that there is no corroborating evidence from any other stem cell researchers supporting this. Thus, I have to think there are numerous issues that are not being told. If it was a true medical breakthrough, I’d have expected lots of attention about this case by the media and other stem cell researchers—but that is singularly lacking. Thus you need to be very cautious at this point.
Personally, I think you’d be wise to not even consider stem cell therapy until it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) here in the USA. When that happens, you can be more confident that it will be a good option for you.
As I have pointed out, using stem cell therapy safely to restore hearing is still likely 20 years (more or less) away. It is not imminent at this point.
For a more realistic view of where stem cell research is at, read my recent article, “Hair Cell Research—Some Unexpected Results” (December, 2009).
Furthermore, from everything I’ve read so far, stem cell therapy isn’t the cure for hearing loss that it is made out to be. Yes, hearing gets somewhat better—but nowhere near back to normal. So far they are talking about a 10 to 20 dB improvement (which is definitely a step in the right direction), but you’d still be very hard of hearing. Hopefully, they will find ways to improve on that in the future.
Thus, at present, for example, if you have a profound hearing loss at say 100 dB—you could expect your hearing to improve to maybe 80 dB with stem cell therapy, which would bump you up to the severe hearing loss class. That’s better, but not good.
In contrast, with today’s cochlear implant (CI) technology, you could expect your hearing to improve all the way up to 20 to 30 dB. That’s in the normal range, and that’s really good!
Thus the CI is still the only real option you have today. True, you will find a few people have problems with their CIs, but the vast majority say that in spite of any problems, if they had it to do over again, they would do it again in a heartbeat. That’s how satisfied they are with their cochlear implants. Something like 98% or more report “success” with their CIs—which is a pretty good success rate.
Based on my knowledge of the results of hundreds and hundreds of people I know that have received CIs, I agree with your doctor. You do have a good chance of getting more/better hearing than you have now. It is probably well worth the risk.
Although stem cell therapy sounds promising, this technology is not ready for the big time. There are still far too many unknowns, whereas the CI technology is proven to work.
Since you are worried that stem cell therapy may help you in the future, here’s one solution for you to consider. Why not have a CI in your worse ear now, and wear your hearing aid in your better ear. Then, if and when stem cell therapy has been proven, and approved by the FDA, you could have it done in your better ear and still wear the CI in your worse ear.
That way you could get the best of both worlds—be able to hear better now, and possibly hear much better later.