Baldness is a not uncommon problem for men—and some women—as they age. Although some men are comfortable with their baldness, many would prefer to have a full head of hair. A new study by researchers at Columbia University (New York) and Durham University (Durham, UK) has reported a new technique for growing new human hair. Their findings were published online on October 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Current treatments are limited because they are not able to result in a lush head of hair. Hair loss medications are available that can slow down the loss of hair follicles or stimulate the growth of existing hairs; however, they do not create new hair follicles. Hair transplantation is a procedure in which plugs of hair from one area of the scalp are relocated to a bald area; however, they also do not result in robust hair growth at the new site.
The new technique is still in the experimental stage; however, the researchers note that their findings should offer renewed hope to individuals who suffer from “pattern baldness,” which is common with aging, or hair loss that results from disease, wounds, or burns. The new procedure is based on dermal papilla, which are a small cluster of cells located at the base of a hair follicle; they provide instructions to other cells to produce hair. For more than four decades, researchers have held the premise that it would be possible to multiply human dermal papilla in a laboratory dish and then transplant them to a person's scalp to generate new hair. However, a number of studies met with failure. When these cells were placed in skin tissue, they promptly stopped performing as skin cells and behaved more like skin cell; thus, hair growth did not occur.
The researchers employed a rodent model to determine if they could solve the problem. This was because the transplantation of rodent papilla to other skin areas they produce hair. This was because that in a laboratory dish, the papilla spontaneously clump into three-dimensional clusters. In contrast, human papilla attach to the bottom of the dish in a thin two-dimensional layer. They acquired dermal papilla cells from seven human donors and grew them in a laboratory dish. They then took a small drop of the culture medium containing the papilla abd turned it upside down; this encouraged the cells to clump together and form a ball.
Each of the balls contained a cluster of approximately 3,000 papilla. They were transplanted into foreskin tissue, obtained from newborns that had been grafted onto the backs of mice. The study authors noted that, due to safety considerations, the technique had to be first tested on animals. The also explained that foreskin tissue does not normally have hair; thus, it was a good way to test the technique's hair-generating potential.
The researchers found that their procedure appeared to partially restore the cells' normal hair-inducing properties. After six weeks, five of the seven transplants resulted in new hair follicles that genetically matched the donors. They cautioned that, further studies must be conducted before the process can be tried in humans.