Follica, a U.S.-based firm, has licensed research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, to develop a proprietary procedure which they claim consistently creates new hair follicles in both mice and men.
The procedure has completed both preclinical and clinical trials, according to one of the co-founders, and is based on processes referred to as skin-perturbation and follicle neogenesis. By peeling the top layers of skin on the scalp back the cells revert to a stem-like state. A catalyst can then be applied that essentially re-programs the cells to be hair-producers.
Although Follica haven’t provided exact details of how they’re translating the research into clinical findings, it’s not the first time that cells have been re-purposed. Scientists have already successfully re-programmed cells to produce muscle tissue for damaged hearts, for example.
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Who’s Behind It?
Follica describes itself as a company with a world class team of scientific, clinical and industry experts harnessing recent advances in epithelial stem cell biology to develop novel therapeutic approaches to conditions and disorders of the hair follicle.
Follica is backed by PureTech Ventures, a Boston-based venture capital firm investing in life sciences companies with a focus on novel therapeutics, medical devices, and research and platform technologies. According to The Boston Globe, “PureTech prowls conferences and scours academic publications for the potential seeds of a new company. Then, it brings the scientific founders together with seasoned start-up executives, board members, and funding — sometimes from big pharma companies, sometimes from venture capital firms.”
Dr. George Cotsarelis, from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine is one such Follica co-founder. You may be familiar with some of Dr. Cotsarelis’ work from my previous article ‘The Future of Hair Loss? PGD2’. His involvement, both as a key figure in the research which underpins the Follica technology, and as member of the executive team, lends credibility to the venture.
Why You Should Be Excited
Currently available treatments such as minoxidil (Rogaine / Regaine) and finasteride (Propecia) work by preventing miniaturisation in existing hair follicles. The miniaturisation process quickly resumes, however, when you stop either treatment (see the ‘Hair Loss Explained’ section).
Hair transplants address this problem by relocating healthy follicles from hirsute areas to those that are barren or semi-arid. Unfortunately, they’re expensive and incredibly invasive.
So what’s the ultimate solution? How about tricking the body into creating brand-new hair follicles? I thought so too.
So, What Else Do We Know About How it Works?
Dr. Cotsarelis, noticed hairs growing in the middle of small cuts they’d made in the skin of adult mice in 2007. Cotsarelis says of the observation “We figured out they were de novo hair follicles formed in a process that looked a lot like embryogenesis.” Yep, didn’t mean a lot to me either.
In layman’s terms it turns out that the wound-healing process causes skin cells to de-differentiate, providing a limited time window during which the cells can be re-programmed to form new hair follicles. By applying a catalyst during this window (likely via topical formulation), to manipulate the key signalling pathways that communicate follicle formation, new follicles can be produced. In short hand, so-called ‘hair follicle neogenesis’ via a procedure / drug combination.
Follica is said to have patented a minimally invasive “skin perturbation” device which removes the top layers of skin, causing the underlying skin cells to revert to a stem-like state, after which a molecule is applied topically to direct the formation of new hair follicles. Which molecule(s) are being used is not clear although I’ve read that a growth factor referred to as Fgf9 (see below) as well as lithium treatments may have been tested.
Bernat Olle, Follica co-founder and PureTech principal, says that the skin-perturbation procedure isn’t painful, but that the area could be numbed anyway. He adds that in both preclinical and clinical trials, “we’ve been able to consistently show that we create substantial new hair follicles in humans, and that’s something that no other approach in hair loss as far as I am aware has been able to achieve.
The new hair follicles are said to have functioned normally, cycled through the normal stages of hair growth and exhibited normal architecture, including a full complement of stem cells.”
And the Hits Just Keep on Coming
Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have clearly been busy. This summer (2013), Dr. Cotsarelis and colleagues published a Nature Medicine paper in which they claim to have identified a protein called fibroblast growth factor 9, or Fgf9, which helps hair follicles form and regenerate during the wound healing process.
To date findings have only been tested in mice. However, when elevated levels of Fgf9 were applied in the experiment there was a two to three-fold increase in the number of new hair follicles produced.
The virtual absence of this growth factor in humans helps to explain why humans don’t regenerate their hair after wounding. Researchers believe that Fgf9 could be used therapeutically for people with various hair and scalp disorders. The next step will be to test the findings in human skin grafts, followed by clinical trials.
It doesn’t take a University of Pennsylvania researcher to grasp the significance of this finding in the context of the earlier hair follicle neogenesis discussion. So what do we have? The potential for a turbo-charged, hair-raising formula:
- Wound the scalp
- Add a little Fgf9 to supercharge results
- Equals your crowning glory restored
Time to Market
Now, before you get too carried away, we should probably have the obligatory reality check. Even if the science proves to be commercially viable, it will likely be some time before it becomes commercially available.
That said, there may be hope for a shorter time to market. Known drug compounds have already been proven to manipulate the key signalling pathways involved in hair follicle formation. Known drugs are generally well studied and would likely not have to be as extensively tested as a new chemical would be.
On the flipside, Follica will, at the very least, still need to conduct longer trials and follow-ups with patients, for example, to determine how long the new hair lasts. It may be that patients will need to have a top-up procedure(s).
I suppose that’s a very long way of saying: ‘I wouldn’t like to guess’.
Although the concept is certainly compelling, details on clinical progress and the science itself are lacking. Follica have their own version of events for this: according to Bernat Olle “We’ve had to be careful about how we deliver the news because there’s all these huge responses”.
I’ll need more convincing. At least at this point in time, it ‘s still largely unknown which growth factors were added to create the new follicles, how much growth was actually achieved, and how lasting the results will be. I’ll update you as, and when, I hear something new.
To see what worked for me go here.
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