Could a baldness cure be on the horizon? Maybe so, if researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Durham University have their way.
The research team say that they have created a hair restoration method which involves the generation of new hair growth, rather than simply moving hair from one part of the scalp to another or encouraging existing hair follicles to grow, which is how existing baldness treatments work.
According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Angela M Christiano, a professor of genetics and development as well as the Richard and Mildred Rhodebeck Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University, the new treatment could be especially helpful for those who do not generally have enough donor hairs available for a transplant, such as women, those with scarring alopecia and burn victims. The technique could also be helpful for men who are in the early stages of baldness.
Study co-leader, Dr. Colin Jahoda, who is a professor of stem cell sciences at Durham University, says that the idea that their discovery is based upon – cloning hair follicles using inductive dermal papilla cells – has actually been around for decades. However, scientists have not been able to come up with a way to make it work – until now.
Dermal papillae are small nipple-like projections which extend from the dermis (the middle of three major layers of the skin) into the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). Blood vessels in the dermal papillae nourish the hair follicles. They also play a crucial role in forming new ones.
Scientists have been trying for over forty years to find a way to culture cells from the dermal papillae in order to encourage them to generate new hair follicles. Unfortunately, when the cells are placed into cultures, they revert back to being skin cells and lose their ability to produce hair follicles.
However, the researchers have now found a way around this problem by examining the behavior of rodent dermal papillae. Rodent papillae are quite easy to harvest, expand into hair follicles and then transplant back into rodent skin. The difference, says Jahoda, is that rodent dermal papillae tend to form clumps when they are placed in tissue culture, where human dermal papillae do not. The researchers thought that this clumping action might serve to help the papillae to interact and release signals which reprogram the recipient skin to grow new hair follicles.
The scientists theorized that if they could make harvested human dermal papillae clump together in a similar manner they might be able to induce new hair follicles to form and create a cure for baldness.
To test out their theory, they harvested dermal papillae from seven human donors and cloned the cells in tissue culture. After a few days, they took the cultured papillae and transplanted them between the dermis and epidermis of human skin which had been grafted onto the backs of mice. In five out of seven transplants, there was new hair growth that lasted for at least six weeks following the transplant. They also did genetic testing to confirm that the hair did indeed come from the human donors.
This method has the potential to completely transform the treatment of baldness, according to Christiano. Right now, the best we can do with medications is slow down hair loss or stimulate the regrowth of existing hairs. And, all traditional hair transplants do is move existing hair from one place to another. This method would actually allow for the creation of new hair.
Of course, more work still needs to be done before the method is ready to test on humans, Jahoda said. But, the research team is hopeful that clinical trials can begin soon. If their work bears fruit and creates a cure for baldness, it could be a real blessing for men and women around the world who are currently suffering from hair loss.
Written by: Nancy Schimelpfening