Believe it or not, Americans shell out $800 million on hair restoration surgery each year. Such extravagance may seem vain and purely of aesthetic concern, but if you consider the effect balding has on one’s self-esteem and well-being, it’s easier to justify the expenditure. According to the American Hair Loss Association, two-thirds of men will suffer from hair loss by age 35, and 40% of hair loss sufferers are women! Fortunately, science is moving fast in the field of hair regeneration, and adult stem cells seem to be the most promising tool for hair restoration.
Follicle-generating Stem Cells
Hair follicles contain two types of cells: epithelial cells (located at the bulge of the follicle) and dermal papillae cells. Xiaowei Xu, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Dermatology at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, successfully converted a large number of adult stem cells into epithelial stem cells, one part of the hair loss equation.
This is not the first time scientists have explored the potential of using stem cells to regenerate hair follicles, but it is the first time stem cells have successfully produced enough of these hair follicle-generating epithelial cells to be considered a viable treatment for hair restoration.
Xu and team added three genes to human skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The addition of the genes converted the fibroblasts to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs for short). The beauty of iPSCs is that they can convert into any type of cell in the human body, so researchers transformed the iPSCs into epithelial stem cells. Capitalizing on techniques used by other researchers in previous studies, Xu and colleagues carefully regulated the timing of the growth factors the cells received so that they could manipulate the iPSCs to produce large numbers of epithelial stem cells. In just 18 days, a record-breaking 25% of iPSCs transformed into epithelial cells.
“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,” Xu says. According to Xu, those cells have applications that extend beyond hair regeneration to include wound healing and cosmetics.
Unfortunately, research is still in the preliminary phase. Xu’s team only tackled one component—the epithelial cells. Science has yet to figure out how to generate dermal papillae cells. But don’t worry…they’re working on it.
George Cotsarelis, MD, director of the Hair and Scalp Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia describes a method dubbed “hair cloning” that scientists are currently exploring.
“Others are taking hair follicles out of human scalp and growing them with dermal papilla cells,” Cotsarelis says. “If they grow in culture, you might be able to recombine them with skin cells and form new follicles. This would let you expand the number of follicles you get for a hair transplant. This may not be that far off—5 to 10 years, maybe.”
Those 5-10 years can’t come soon enough for some of us! In the meantime, combat baldness with a balanced diet, vitamin and mineral supplementation, herbs like saw palmetto, and essential oil scalp massages—which not only stimulate hair follicles but feel good too!