It is 5 years since scientists in a Berlin University announced they had cracked hair loss. That we could all look forward to as much hair as we wanted and wherever we liked. What they had in fact achieved was an important, but early, step on the road. Back in 2010 they had taken stem cells and from them had reproduced working hair follicles for the very first time. They confidently announced that they would have the whole business of growing healthy new follicles resolved within the year. Little did they know that the humble hair follicle would turn out to be one of the most challenging types of skin cell to re-produce with total success inside a laboratory.
Those early follicles were modest efforts, thin under-achievers. More was going to need to be done to understand how to do it perfectly, every time. Research often requires the lure of an identifiable market for the results, the hair-loss industry is a classic example where a genuine new solution in the market, with significant advantages over the existing options, could take a share very quickly indeed.
Fortunately there are many great research teams focused on clever work in this area, chasing that huge incentive in being the laboratory that gets over the line first in this research – imagine being first to market with a treatment which offers as many donor hairs as you want with no requirement for harvested sites. The new Dermal Papillae and hair follicles would be created by implanting stem cells which trigger their growth. More than that the new hair would be youthful, thicker and healthier than any of the existing hair. A recent study brings that promise ever closer to reality.
Our Naked Friends With Benefits
The study used several groups of stem cells, most from artificially produced cells made from reverse engineering fully grown cells. These were implanted into the skin of naked mice which, it turns out, have remarkably compatible skin to our own (they certainly bear a resemblance to the artists’ impressions of our earliest mammalian ancestors). Although one of the artificial cells showed some minor growth the landmark result was unquestionably achieved with the implants using human embryonic stem cells. Growth from implanting these cells was described as robust. Of course implanting these cells into mice is unpopular in some quarters and for many more there is great discomfort about using human stem cells at all, never mind for treating hair loss.
So while this is exciting news it needs to be kept in perspective. This type of research probably needs science to find ways of closing the gap on that essential difference in performance between manufactured, so-called induced, stem cells and those harvested from humans.
But quietly, somewhere, the work goes on.