Hair Loss Cure Isn’t Here Yet, But Experimental Stem Cell Approach Looks Promising

While a cure for hair loss is some years away, a California research team has brought us much closer that such a treatment becoming a reality. Hair loss, a condition that affects 50 million men and 30 million women in the U.S. alone, might fall to stem cell treatments some day.

Dr. Alexey Terskikh led the team from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California that showed that stem cells derived from human skin can be used to grow hair in mice.

“The method is a marked improvement over current methods that rely on transplanting existing hair follicles from one part of the head to another,” Dr. Terskikh, who serves as an associate professor at the institute. “Our stem cell method provides an unlimited source of cells from the patient for transplantation and isn’t limited by the availability of existing hair follicles.”

Conventional hair transplantation and other hair restoration treatments that are presently in use must use whatever hair the patient has left. However a stem cell-based procedure could, in theory, grow all kinds of hair on the heads of completely bald men and women.

“If this approach is proven to work in humans, it will change existing treatments radically,” Dr. Nicole Rogers, a dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon in New Orleans, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Dr. Marie Jhin, a dermatologist in San Francisco and an adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University, feels the same way about Terskikh’s results. If this treatment pans out, she said that it “absolutely would be a breakthrough.”

Rogers, however, tempered her excitement by advising caution and skepticism, since there have been many “fits and starts” over the years in the hair-restoration field. Rogers added that the Sanford-Burnham group must face many challenges in order to replicate their results in large-scale human trials.

The technique exploits the ability of human pluripotent stem cells to differentiate into almost any other adult cell type in the body. Terskikh and his collaborators differentiated induced pluripotent stem cells made from reprogrammed skin cells into the dermal papilla cells that regulate the formation and growth of hair follicles. Furthermore, when they injected these cells into the lower layers of the skin of mice, they grew hair.

Close-up photograph showing new hair growth | Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute
Close-up photograph showing new hair growth | Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

Human dermal papilla cells are unsuitable for conventional hair transplants because quickly lose their hair-growing potency and cannot be obtained in necessary numbers for clinical purposes.

Terskikh wisely did not prognosticate when they would be able to extend their protocol to treat hairless humans. The next step, according to Terskikh is to secure a partner to fund future research into this area.