SCIENCE
01/30/2015 09:26 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Hair Loss Cure Isn't Here Yet, But Experimental Stem Cell Approach Looks Promising

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

Hats off to researchers in California. They've taken what appears to be a big step toward the development of a cure for hair loss, a condition that affects 50 million men and 30 million women in the U.S. alone.

The scientists, working at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., showed that stem cells derived from human skin can be used to grow hair--at least in mice.

"The method is a marked improvement over current methods that rely on transplanting existing hair follicles from one part of the head to another," Dr. Alexey Terskikh, an associate professor at the institute and a member of the team of researchers who demonstrated the experimental technique, said in a written statement. "Our stem cell method provides an unlimited source of cells from the patient for transplantation and isn't limited by the availability of existing hair follicles."

In other words, unlike conventional hair transplantation and other hair restoration treatments now in use, the technique could--at least in theory--grow lots of hair on the heads of men and women who are completely bald.

That would be a very big deal.

"If this approach is proven to work in humans, it will change existing treatments radically," Dr. Nicole Rogers, a dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon in New Orleans, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Dr. Marie Jhin, a dermatologist in San Francisco and an adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University, echoed that assessment. If the treatment pans out, she told HuffPost Science in an email, it "absolutely would be a breakthrough."

But Rogers said there have been many "fits and starts" over the years as researchers have worked on other promising hair-restoration techniques, adding that the Sanford-Burnham researchers face many challenges--including replicating their results in large-scale human trials.

The technique exploits the ability of human pluripotent stem cells to turn into almost any other cells in the body. Terskikh and his collaborators turned these cells into the dermal papilla cells that regulate the formation and growth of hair follicles, and showed that these grew hair when injected into mice.

Human dermal papilla cells are unsuitable for conventional hair transplants because they cannot be obtained in necessary numbers and they quickly lose their hair-growing potency, according to the statement.

Terskikh wouldn't hazard a guess as to when, if ever, the experimental technique might be available for use in humans. The next step, he said, would be to find a partner to fund future research.

A paper describing the research was published Jan. 21, 2015 in the journal PLOS One.

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