Hair Loss Cure? Scientists Find Way To Regrow Hair With Person's Own Cells

10/21/2013 04:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
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By: Rachael Rettner
Published: 10/21/2013 02:56 PM EDT on LiveScience

A new method to regrow hair using a person's own cells holds promise, according to a preliminary study in mice.

In the study, researchers used a type of human skin cell to generate new hair follicles, the structures beneath the skin's surface that sprout hair.

Although the study is one of the first to find a way to create new hair follicles in the lab, much more research is needed to improve the technique. The hair follicles generated in the study typically did not sprout hair that could grow all the way to the skin's surface, the researchers said. [7 Beauty Trends That Are Bad for Your Health]

Still, once the technique is refined, it could have advantages over existing hair-loss treatments, which typically work by slowing the loss of hair follicles, stimulating the growth of existing hairs or moving hair from one part of the body to another, called hair transplantation.

These methods usually do not work well in patients who already have a limited number of hair follicles, such as women with hair loss, or patients with burns, the researchers said.

In contrast, the new method requires very few existing hairs in order to work, and could make hair transplantation available to more patients, said study researcher Angela M. Christiano, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center.

In the study, the researchers obtained cells called dermal papilla cells, which give rise to hair follicles, from seven people with pattern baldness. The dermal papilla cells were cultured in such a way that they were allowed to grow in three-dimensional space (as opposed to a two-dimensional lab dish).

Once these cells grew into spherical droplets, they were transplanted into human skin that had been grafted onto the backs of mice. These skin grafts were made from the foreskin of infants, which does not contain hair or hair follicles.

In five of the seven samples, the transplanted dermal papilla cells induced new hair follicles to grow in the skin graft. A DNA test confirmed that these hair follicles were, indeed, a genetic match with the donors'.

"I think it's fabulous," Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said of the study. "The fact that they can have neogenesis (regeneration) of hair...is really the future of modern medicine."

Currently, to treat hair loss with transplantation, "You have to take follicles from one area of the head and transplant them to another area of the head...It limits what you can do for your hair," Green said.

Another genetic test showed that the cultured dermal papilla cells were similar to, but not completely the same as, dermal papilla cells in the body, in terms of which genes were "turned on." More research is needed to figure out how to "fully reprogram" cultured dermal papilla cells so that they can produce fully functional hair follicles, the researchers said.

Dr. George Cotsarelis, chair of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, said that the study's findings regarding hair follicle generation were in some ways not surprising, because they confirm what has been suggested by earlier reserach. But the genetic analsyis of dermal papilla cells is novel, and may help researchers better understand "the molecular underpinnings for why cells are able to make a follicies," Cotsarelis said.

However, future research should show that the new method works on adult skin, not just infant foreskin, Cotsarelis said.

"The foreskin is really quite differnet [from adult skin], it's more plastic," Cotsarelis said, referring to the ability of the skin cells to undergo change.

The study is published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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  • High-Mercury Fish
  • Wu says she spends a good amount of time discussing diet with patients who come to her with thinning hair or brittle nails. One of the main culprits in her Los Angeles office is too much fish. "Some fish contain high levels of mercury, and high levels of mercury can lead to hair loss," she says. These patients are eating a lot of fish, she stresses, and particularly sushi, sometimes four or five times a week. While true mercury poisoning is rare, swordfish and mackerel do have high levels of mercury, as do certain varieties of tuna. Canned light tuna, salmon and shrimp are all low in mercury, according to the FDA.
  • "Just like sugar is bad for the skin in many ways, foods that are sugary are bad for your hair and nails," says Wu. Eating sweets causes blood sugar to spike. As the body pumps out insulin in response to the rise in blood sugar, it also raises levels of androgen, a male hormone that can make the hair follicle shrink in both women and men, she says.
  • High-Glycemic Foods
  • It follows, then, that foods that are quickly broken down into sugar pose similar hair and nail risks. Starchy white breads, pastas and cakes trigger a similar response in the body, says Wu, and can lead to hair thinning. Research has shown that a high-glycemic-index diet can increase androgen levels, while a low-glycemic-index diet can reduce them.
  • Too Much Vitamin A
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  • In ultra-high doses, vitamin A can lead to hair loss. A typical multivitamin won't usually contain a dangerous amount, according to JoyBauer.com, but an individual vitamin A supplement might. It's also related to compounds found in some medications, says Wu, like Accutane, which could be why hair thinning is a side effect of some treatments, she says.
  • Too Little Protein
  • Since hair and nails are made of protein, people who don't get enough in their diet may experience brittle nails or hair loss, says Wu. Typically, this only occurs in people with severe diet limitations or eating disorders, she says. Vegetarians should keep in mind that protein doesn't have to come from meat -- beans, tofu, spinach, lentils and more are all beneficial. Foods with a particular amino acid that creates keratin, called cystine, can also help, like pork, broccoli, wheat germ and red peppers, says Wu.
  • Too Little Iron And Zinc
  • There's a misconception that little white flecks in your nails may indicate a calcium deposit. According to Reader's Digest, those spots might be a sign your diet is lacking in zinc. Both zinc and iron -- found together naturally in red meats and some seafood -- are essential to keratin formation, says Wu, so skimping on these can cause hair and nail problems. Getting enough can be challenging for vegetarians and vegans, she says. Luckily, both zinc and iron are found naturally in some beans.

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