Battle against baldness turns to stem cells

Balding men (and women) take note: That hair you lost may return to you, courtesy of stem cells.

Two new studies show promising treatment for baldness by turning stem cells into hair follicle cells and transplanting them onto denuded parts of the scalp or body.

Image shows the growth of dark hair on a patch of skin from mice with an albino background. Hair growth was achieved by transplanting stem cells under the skin.
Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute
Image shows the growth of dark hair on a patch of skin from mice with an albino background. Hair growth was achieved by transplanting stem cells under the skin.

Typical hair replacement surgery requires doctors to take hair follicles from one part of the head or body and transplant them onto a bald or thinning area. This works if you have enough healthy follicles you aren't already using.

In contrast, a group of researchers has found a way to regrow a type of cell crucial for the development of healthy follicles, making it possible to grow new hair without having to sacrifice tissue from another part of the body.

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By genetically modifying adult human skin cells, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Institute of Technology were able to make a kind of stem cell—called an epithelial stem cell—that is one of the building blocks for functioning hair follicles. When the scientists planted their epithelial cells onto mice, the stem cells transformed into cells for both human skin and hair follicles. The cells even produced structurally recognizable hair shafts.

"This is the first time anyone has made scalable amounts of epithelial stem cells that are capable of generating the epithelial component of hair follicles," lead researcher Xiowei Xu said in a press release published along with the study.

Since they can also regenerate skin cells, the stem cells could also be used for applications such as healing wounds or burns. The team published its findings Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The hitch is that epithelial cells are only part of the solution to hair growth.

When people lose hair, they lose both their epithelial cells and another type of hair cell known as a dermal papilla without which humans cannot fully regrow hair. Xu's team has not yet been able to develop the dermal papillae cells, but another group of scientists, at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California, say they have.

Alexey Terskikh and his colleagues grew hair on the backs of rats by injecting dermal papilla-like cells under their skin. Rather than growing new epithelial cells, "our method 'activates' the existing hair follicles to grow new hair," Terskikh told CNBC in an email.

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Terskikh said his team next needs an appropriate funding partner and volunteers for a thorough human study. The researchers still have to evaluate dosage levels, overall safety and other parameters.

"We are at an early stage," Terskikh said. "Although very encouraging, the experiments we performed are in mice and we need a thorough human study to say with confidence this approach will be successful in humans."

Terskikh's team published its findings in the journal PLOS One this week.

More than 40 million men and 21 million women are affected by hair loss in the United States alone, and the industry built around curing the problem is huge. In fact, the amount money spent on curing hair loss has been criticized for outstripping other public health issues such as malaria.