Plunge under the sea and a tentacled, translucent creature could provide us with the answer we need to restore hearing loss in humans. And it isn’t because these starlet sea anemones are exceptional listeners; instead, these underwater beauties are regenerative wonders.
Starlet sea anemones have been studied for quite some time by researchers. However, their particular skill of splitting in half during asexual reproduction and regenerating their bodies had never been applied to hearing loss before.
Yet, exploring this possibility makes sense, as when sea anemones split in half, so too do the hair-like cells that cover their tentacles. These tiny cells, which are sensitive to vibrations in the water and help them detect passing prey, are incredibly similar to the hair cells found in the dark ear cavities of humans. Unfortunately, when our hair cells become damaged, we don’t repair them quite as effortlessly.
With access to the creature’s incredible healing powers, Glen Watson, a biologist at the University of Louisiana, decided to see whether the anemones’ proteins could work in mammals too. The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
First, Watson and his team discovered that a cocktail of proteins in the mucus of the sea creatures’ bodies helped them restore their injured hair cells. By isolating these proteins, the researchers then tested their hypothesis on the damaged cochlear cells of mice.
In order to mimic hearing loss in mice, the researchers deprived the hair cells of calcium ions, which help maintain the cell structure necessary to transmit sound. This made the typically rigid hair cells become “splayed rather than occurring in well-organized bundles.” They were damaged in much the same way as the cells in our ears become damaged by loud sounds.
The team then bathed the damaged hair cells with the sea anemones’ cocktail of repair proteins and waited. An hour later, the hair cells had already improved significantly, becoming much more rigid and taking up calcium ions again.
“This is a preliminary step, but it’s a very useful step in looking at restoring the structure and function of these damaged cells,” says Lavinia Sheets, a hearing researcher at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study, to Science News.
In the future, Watson and his colleagues plan to investigate whether similar results occur in living mice. “If we could get to those hair cells before they commit to die and treat them, there’s a possibility we could reduce hearing loss,” said Watson. While interesting, the research is still in its early days. Hopefully, the findings could one day lead to a breakthrough in hearing loss treatment for patients.