A new medical research team at University Hospitals in Iowa City is investigating one of the leading causes of deafness. Team leader Doctor Bruce Gantz, an otolaryngology professor at the University of Iowa, says their goal is to successfully re-grow hair cells in the inner ear.

“Hair cells are the cells that change the mechanical soundwave into an electrical signal that allows us to perceive sound,” he says. “In people that lose their hearing from aging, or from noise exposure or just from being deaf, lose their ability for those hair cells to be active.”

The team is working out of the new Iowa Center for Auditory Regeneration. Gantz says they’ll be trying to re-grow these vital components in the hearing process by working at the genetic level. “We are in the process of hiring a group of people who have actually done this in animals. They’ve been able to stimulate these hair cells to regrow in guinea pigs,” Dr. Gantz says. “If we can translate that to humans in the next ten to 15 years, then we may really have the opportunity to regenerate the inner ear.”

A person may suffer a hearing loss due to losing inner ear hair cells but Gantz says it has absolutely nothing to do with baldness. “These hair cells have little filaments on the top of the cells that are activated by the sensory systems in the inner ear, but they have no relevance to the hair cells on the top of your head,” he says.

About one in ten Iowans is hearing impaired due to a range of factors — including their family genetics, old age, the noise of machinery or even loud headphones. Gantz says hearing loss is the third-most common chronic disorder to effect Iowans over age 65, behind arthritis and hypertension.