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.