Michael Detamore‘s laboratory at the University of Kansas Medical Center has used mesenchymal stem cells from connective tissue in human umbilical cord tissue to form structures that have some although not all features of human hair.
Human umbilical cord contains a unique connective tissue called “Wharton’s jelly.” Wharton’s jelly expands after birth to staunch bleeding from the umbilical veins and arteries. Within Wharton’s jelly is a mesenchymal stem cell population called Wharton’s Jelly Mesenchymal Stromal Cells or WJMSCs. Experiments in a variety of labs have shown that WJMSCs have differentiate into bone, cartilage, muscle, and neural cells. Recently, several labs have used three-dimensional culture systems to get WJMSCs to differentiate into tubular and endometrial cells.
Detamore and his co-workers used this three-dimensional culture system to differentiate WJMSCs into layered structures that expressed some of the genes associated with hair follicles and also looked like follicles. The cells formed small spheres of cells known as “spheroids.” Detamore and his colleagues showed that these spheroids can form bone, but during done differentiation, Detamore and the other workers in his lab noticed that the spheroids form protrusions that looked like hairs. See for yourself below.
The other side of the spheroid did form bone, but the hair-like structures did eventually form bone. There are specific genes that are expressed in hair follicles, and these can be used to determine if the projections are actually hair follicles. One of these genes, cytokeratin 19 or CK19, was expressed at pretty high levels in the hair follicles. Another hair-specific gene, CK15 was also expressed in the hair-like structures.
Are these real hair follicles? Probably not, but they seem to be on their way to making hair follicles. Furthermore, the production of these hair-like structures was rather easy. If WJMSCs could be used to make hair, then they might be useful for cosmetic procedures that replace lost hair follicles as a result of baldness.