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'Breakthrough' trial brings baldness cure closer

"Scientists say they have moved a step closer to banishing bald spots," BBC News reveals. While the research only involved mice, it did provide 'proof of concept' that it is possible to reprogramme human cells to grow hair…

"Scientists say they have moved a step closer to banishing bald spots," BBC News reveals. While the research only involved mice, it did provide "proof of concept" that it is possible to reprogramme human cells to grow hair.

The pioneering technique showed it was possible to take human papillae (cells present at the root of human hair) and grow them in a 3D spheroid in the lab. A 3D spheroid is a method of developing more complex types of cell cultures (where cells are grown under laboratory conditions) compared to conventional 2D techniques – such as growing cells in a Petri dish.

The cells were then injected into bald human skin grafted to the back of a mouse. This resulted in the formation of new hair follicles – the structures below the skin that produce hair.

The new technique shows it is possible to form completely new hair follicles where there weren’t any before, which is a significant step forward.

It appears the technique does have the potential to offer a new treatment if it can be developed to work in humans on a feasible scale and produce cosmetically pleasing results. However, the study authors themselves acknowledge that the technique needs a lot more development and refinement and that a baldness treatment may be a long way off.

Consequently, reports that a cure for baldness is a “hair’s breadth away” may reflect an interest in writing puns over the facts, whereas headlines reporting a “breakthrough” do appear to be justified.


Does baldness need a cure?

In most cases baldness in men is not the result of disease, but occurs due to the effects of male hormones on the scalp. So a case could be made that male-pattern baldness is not strictly a medical condition that needs treatment.

 

Bald men who are proud of their condition include Bruce Willis, Captain of the Starship Enterprise Patrick Stewart, and comedy legend Larry David.

 

However some people, especially women, can experience considerable psychological distress due to hair loss. Read more about coping with hair loss.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from US and UK universities. The study had numerous funding sources, including a Science of Human Appearance Career Development Award from the Dermatology Foundation, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council follow-on fund, a Medical Research Council Grant and New York State Foundation for Science Technology and Innovation and New York State Stem Cell Science grants.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The media generally reported the science accurately, however many reports appeared to overemphasise the speed at which this new technique might develop into a treatment for baldness. The researchers themselves cautioned that it was early days, and it was not easy to estimate how long this would take. Headlines reporting that a new baldness treatment was a "hair’s breadth" away appeared more interested in puns than facts.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a laboratory study attempting to take material from the root of a human hair and use it to grow lots of new dermal papillae in the laboratory, which could later be transplanted back onto bald skin to produce new hair.

There are some structures of the hair that reside below the skin. Collectively these are known as hair follicles, which is where the hair is fastened and grows. The hair above the skin is known as the hair shaft, and is what most people are describing when they use the term hair.

The dermal papilla is a group of cells at the root of the hair shaft, below the skin, within the hair follicle.

Interestingly, in rodents it has long been possible to take the dermal papillae, grow them into many more cells in the lab and successfully transplant them back into bald skin where they can induce the formation of new hair-producing hair follicles.

So, the papillae’s potential to form new hair follicles and new hair has been the focus of a lot of regenerative hair research.

Unfortunately, scientists soon discovered this doesn’t work the same way in humans so have been working to better understand why the same changes don’t occur. The goal being to induce dermal papillae to develop into hair-producing follicles in the laboratory to mimic the hair regeneration possible in rodents.


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