Hair Cloning: Fact or Fiction?
Scientists have known that dermal papillae cells derived from the base of hair follicles can give rise to new follicles for over forty years. These cells have the ability to reprogram the surrounding skin cells to form hair follicles. Turning that knowledge into practical hair restoration techniques for humans however hasn’t been easy. According to Professor Colin Jahoda, professor of stem cell sciences at Durham University in the UK, “once the dermal papilla cells are put into conventional, two-dimensional tissue culture, they revert to basic skin cells and lose their ability to produce hair follicles.”
Of Mice and Men
Previous research by Professor Jahoda found that “rodent dermal papillae … could be easily harvested and transplanted back into rodent skin. Unlike human dermal papillae, rodent papillae tend to spontaneously clump together creating their own tissue environment, and since they remained as a collective this ultimately helped them to reprogramme the recipient skin to grow new follicles.”
And thus it has always been, the meek shall inherit the earth. Not so fast! In October 2013 a joint research team from Durham University and Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) in the USA, including Professor Jahoda and Dr. Angela Christiano, a well-respected hair geneticist and dermatology professor, published a breakthrough in hair cloning.
The joint research team devised a method which is the first to use cloned human cells to generate human hair growth. A procedure they call “hair follicle neogenesis”. The team reasoned that if human papillae could be encouraged to clump together, just as they do in mice, then the conditions could be created to induce hair growth in human skin.
To test this theory, they “harvested dermal papillae from seven human donors and cloned the cells in tissue culture. After a few days, the cultured papillae were transplanted between the dermis and epidermis layers of human skin that had been grafted onto the backs of mice. In five of the seven tests, the transplants resulted in new hair growth that lasted at least six weeks.” Success was confirmed via DNA analysis which indicated that the new hair follicles genetically matched the donors.
There’s still a Few Twists and Turns before We Reach the Finishing Line
More work is needed before the method can be clinically tested in humans, although the researchers believe this could begin in the near future. Study co-author Professor Colin Jahoda, said: “We need to establish the origins of the critical intrinsic properties of the newly induced hairs, such as their hair cycle kinetics, colour, angle, positioning, and texture. “We also need to establish the role of the host epidermal cells that the dermal papilla cells interact with, to make the new structures.”
The Research Team at Durham and Columbia Aren’t the Only One’s in the Hair Cloning Race
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have just published a study (January 28, 2014) which combines human epithelial stem cells with mouse dermal cells. These were grafted onto a mouse where they grew to form a functional human epidermis and follicles that were structurally similar to human hair follicles. However, there are two types of stem cell that are critical in hair follicles: epithelial stem cells and dermal papillae.
You’ll recall the Durham and Columbia University study produced dermal papillae, while the Penn U team (led by Dr. Xiaowei “George” Xu) produced epithelial stem cells. Could that be wedding bells I hear?! Perhaps more a declaration of love … with the promise of a wedding to come. Both studies have further to go to perfect their findings and a way is yet to be discovered to have the epithelial and dermal components of the follicle interact before being able to produce cosmetically useful hair.
What Does Hair Cloning Mean For Me? Great for Men, Absolute Heaven for Women!
Currently the effectiveness of hair transplants are limited by the availability of the patient’s existing hair for transplantation. This means that it’s largely restricted to the treatment of male pattern baldness (MPB) in patients whose hair loss has stabilized. Typically, women who suffer hair loss, don’t have enough donor hair to produce cosmetically effective outcomes. Hair cloning would remove a key obstacle to successful surgical hair restoration techniques by creating new hair, rather than simply transferring it from one part of the head to another.
As Dr. Christiano explains, hair cloning “offers the possibility of inducing large numbers of hair follicles or rejuvenating existing hair follicles, starting with cells grown from just a few hundred donor hairs. It could make hair transplantation available to individuals with a limited number of follicles, including those with female-pattern hair loss, scarring alopecia, and hair loss due to burns.” Which clearly increases the scope of treatable hair loss conditions.
In addition, hair cloning addresses a number of other limitations of existing hair transplant procedures. For example, hair restoration is a lengthy process (taking up to eight hours) and leaves a large scar on the back of the head. A hair cloning approach would actually increase the number of hair cells able to produce hair by multiplying cells in a lab culture, then transplanting the multiplied cells back into the bald or thinning areas of the patient’s scalp. The technique would need less time and require removal of a smaller patch of cells, thus leaving a smaller scar.
This is a highly prospective area for hair growth treatments and there is reason to believe hair cloning will ultimately produce results we can all benefit from. However commercial availability may well be many years away (don’t you hate it when they say that!).
In the Durham and Columbia study by Jahoda, Christiano et.al., for example, the three-dimensional cultures restored only 22% of the gene expression found in normal hair follicles. That’s just enough to generate new hairs that genetically matched the human donor’s DNA, rather than the mouse! Moreover, despite the significant interest and attention hair cloning has received from the scientific and medical research community, findings are not always shared as extensively as they could be between research teams. As in many walks of life, it’s a race to the finish line where information and resources are often not optimally leveraged to ensure that those who need it most – the patients – receive the treatment in the shortest possible time.
However, while it may still be some time before your local hair restoration clinic offers the treatment, the hair cloning methods discussed above undoubtedly open a world of possibilities. For example, it will have significant ‘knock-on’ benefits for developing new hair loss pharmaceuticals. One of the major obstacles to creating new drugs is an inability to grow hair in the laboratory. Providing ready-made batches of human hair, without the need to go to the source (you and me), will allow an exponential increase in experimentation with new compounds to combat baldness.
Looking further afield, there may also be a time when even the completely bald can regrow hair (albeit from somebody else’s head).
If this isn’t the Holy Grail, it’s certainly to be found in the same place.
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