Sensory hair cells of the mammalian organ of Corti in the inner ear do not regenerate when lost as a consequence of injury, disease, or age-related deafness. This contrasts with other vertebrates such as birds, where the death of hair cells causes surrounding supporting cells to re-enter the cell cycle and give rise to both new hair cells and supporting cells. It is not clear whether the lack of mammalian hair cell regeneration is due to an intrinsic inability of supporting cells to divide and differentiate or to an absence or blockade of regenerative signals. Here we show that post-mitotic supporting cells purified from the postnatal mouse cochlea retain the ability to divide and trans-differentiate into new hair cells in culture. Furthermore, we show that age-dependent changes in supporting cell proliferative capacity are due in part to changes in the ability to downregulate the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p27Kip1 (also known as Cdkn1b). These results indicate that postnatal mammalian supporting cells are potential targets for therapeutic manipulation.
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