This study was designed to evaluate the effect of recombinant human erythropoietin (rhEPO), insulin-like growth factor-1 (rhIGF-1) and epidermal growth factor (rhEGF) on ischemia-induced hair cell loss in an organotypic cochlea culture. The apical, middle and basal parts of the organs of Corti (newborn rat, postnatal days 3-5) were exposed to ischemia (3.5 h) in glucose-free artificial perilymph (pO2 10-20 mmHg) with or without growth factors. Controls were exposed to normoxia. Twenty-four hours after the onset of ischemia, the cultures were stained using tetramethyl rhodamine isothiocyanate (TRITC) phalloidin (hair cells), propidium iodide (membrane integrity) and apoptosis detection kit (DNA-fragmentation). Ischemia (3.5 h) induced a hair cell loss of 20 and 40% in the middle and basal cochlear parts, respectively, and an increase of the numbers of PI-stained and DNA-fragmented nuclei (controls 0-1, ischemia 4-7 nuclei/100 microm). The basal part was more affected than the apical one. rhEPO and rhIGF-1 significantly attenuated the ischemia-induced hair cell loss by reducing processes involved in apoptosis and necrosis. rhEPO has been in clinical use for more than a decade and found to be well tolerated. Therefore, rhEPO could be an effective drug for the prevention of hearing loss via a hair cell protective mechanism.