"I’ll buy you Rogaine, when you start losing all your hair, sew on patches for all your tears” sang Ingrid Michaelson in “The Way I Am,” as losing hair is an inevitable sign of growing old.
But a significant advance may lead to a treatment for hair loss that is much better than the creams, drugs and hair transplants available today.
The clinical term for hair loss is alopecia, which has many causes, including damage to the hair follicles, fungal infections, stress, genetics, illnesses, malnutrition, some medications and autoimmune disorders.
While it is not exclusive to males, 60 percent of hair loss sufferers are men. Men often experience male pattern baldness, a thinning or complete loss of hair at the hairline and at the top of the head. Women experience diffuse hair loss with a gradual loss of hair on the top of the head but little change in the hairline.
Current drugs minoxidil and finasteride stimulate the regrowth of hair. The effects of both drugs last only as long as the medicines are used. Hair transplants involve surgically moving hairs from an area of thick growth to the bald areas of the scalp. While most people attain 60 percent of new hair growth, the cost ranges from $4,000 to $15,000.
A new treatment approach involves removing a smaller patch of scalp with abundant hair. The cells from the area are grown in culture in the lab to increase their numbers.
The cells are then injected back into the scalp’s bald areas. The study focused on a group of cells called dermal papillae from which hair follicles arise.
These cells can reprogram surrounding cells to form hair follicles. Until this study, culturing dermal papillae cells caused them to lose the ability to form hair follicles.
Scientists in this study resorted to an old technique of culturing cells in which a drop containing about 3,000 cells is suspended from the lid of a petri plate.
The lid is then flipped over onto the base of the plate, leaving the cells hanging from the lid. As the cells drift down to the bottom of the drop, the contact they have with one another appears to be critical in allowing the cells to retain their ability to grow hair follicles when transplanted.
They proved this by injecting the cultured dermal papillae cells into human foreskins grafted onto mice. Since human foreskins do not grow hair, they reasoned that if hair grew on that skin, it is likely to work in the scalp. Sure enough, hairs sprouted from five of the seven areas into which the dermal papillae cells were injected.
But much work remains. The hairs that have been grown at present are rather small. The scientists also determined that these transplanted cells only expressed some of the genes normally active in hair follicles. They are trying to find conditions that will activate all the genes necessary to grow more and better hair.