Can Stem Cell Cloning Really Cure Hair Loss?

Can stem cell cloning really make baldness a thing of the past?

For many years now, stem cell cloning has promised to be the hair loss cure everyone’s been hoping for.

But, will it eventually deliver? And if so, when?

This page explains how the cloning process works, and the problems that have been holding it back.

A few facts first of all…

1. Studies have proved that bald mice and bald men can grow hair after being implanted with stem cells. So the science behind this idea is definitely solid.

2. Ongoing hair stem cell research seems to be aimed at treating androgenetic alopecia only, and not any other type of hair loss.

3. This type of treatment uses adult stem cells, not the embryonic stem cells that have raised so much controversy in the past.

4. Although it’s most widely known as stem cell cloning, "follicular multiplication" or "stem cell hair transplantation" are more accurate terms (albeit, sounding much more lengthy and complex).

That’s because the process involved is similar to a hair transplant. The main difference is that it’s cells rather than follicles (or follicular "units" which each contain 1 - 4 hairs) that are collected from one part of the scalp and moved to another.

And, of course, hair cloning also has a huge advantage in that the cells collected are grown (multiplied) in a lab to provide a virtually unlimited supply, whereas hair transplants are restricted by the number of donor hair follicles available from the back of the scalp.

Stem cell cloning could provide an unlimited number of new hair follilces.

How Does Stem Cell Cloning Work?

A small scalp sample is first taken to obtain some healthy hair follicles. The follicles are then dissected to obtain dermal papilla cells from the papilla (as shown in the diagram below) and then incubated and grown in cultures for a few weeks to produce hundreds of thousands of new papilla cells.

They then get injected into the hair loss region of the patient, and new hair should start to grow after a few months.

Job done!

If only it were that simple, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not.

Take a quick look at the complexity this type of biotechnology involves (please refer to the diagram below for the next section)...

Hair stem cell migration from the bulge to the bulb.

Which Stem Cells Should Be Used?

Despite the name, dermal papilla cells (DPC's) don't simply originate from the papilla - they also come from another part of the follicle…

During anagen (the growing phase of the hair growth cycle) epithelial stem cells migrate down from the bulge along the outer root sheath, settle just outside the hair bulb and form the lateral disc.

Then, when the rest of the hair breaks down (during the catagen phase) they turn into hair germ cells, which then produce a new hair in the next growth cycle.

So, it seems that the previous hair cycle is responsible for the next through this stem cell migration.

The cells that actually grow new hair come from the epidermis (i.e., the epithelial cells from the hair bulge). But, the cells from the dermis (i.e., the DPC’s) signal them to do so. So, both epidermal and dermal parts of the skin are involved with creating new hair growth.

Which raises the question: should stem cell cloning use epidermal cells, dermal cells, or both?

Complicated isn't it?

But there's more...

Progenitor Cells

Progenitor cells are also involved in creating new hair. They’re similar to stem cells in that they can change (differentiate) into different types of cell. But, progenitor cells can only differentiate into one specific "target" cell type, and have a fixed number of cell divisions, whereas stem cells can differentiate into many cell types and divide indefinitely. 

So, given that there are several cell types that form a follicle, this might suggest that stem cells are more useful than progenitor cells.

However, studies have shown that a bald scalp appears to be deficient in progenitor cells, but not stem cells. Something, it seems, stops stem cells producing progenitor cells.

So this might suggest that it’s the progenitor cells that are most important. In which case, perhaps the focus should be on progenitor cells rather than stem cell cloning.

Or, should both progenitor cells and stem cells be used?

Problems, Problems, Problems!

There are plenty of other potential problems too…

  • The new hair must be cosmetically acceptable to the patient – lots of long, strong, thick terminal hair with proper pigmentation* (i.e., rather than tiny vellus hair which is near invisible).

    * A study conducted on mice with wounded skin demonstrated stem cell-type activity which produced new hair at double the density of normal hair. But, interestingly, the new hair lacked melanin granules for some reason, and so grew without color (i.e., completely white).

  • Hair density and distribution – the new hair must be evenly distributed on the scalp, and not produce a dense clump of hair in one area and sparse growth in another. Patchy hair growth would not look good!

  • Angle of hair growth – the direction that the hair grows is particularly important at the hairline. But, new hair from the implanted cells might grow at any angle. This, of course, would give a very shabby looking result that's unacceptable to the patient.

  • Will the hair continue to grow in the next cycle? The hair growth cycle can last up to seven years. So, it will take quite some time to know for sure whether or not the hair produced is truly permanent or just a "one off".

  • Since this whole approach involves rapid cell division, it could potentially cause skin cancer unless the growth mechanism is regulated somehow.

  • Stem cell cloning will be very expensive - probably comparable to hair transplants.

The cost of stem cell cloning is likely to be extremely high!

An Alternative?

An alternative way to use hair stem cells might be to rejuvenate existing follicles rather than trying to create new ones. The hair loss process causes a gradual miniaturization of the hair follicles. So, if the implanted stem cells could somehow regenerate these follicles, then healthy hair regrowth might be restored.

The advantages of this approach would be that the problems mentioned above concerning angle of hair growth, hair density and distribution, would not apply since the original hair follicles would already have a natural distribution and orientation.

So Far, So Good?

So far, progress has been mixed. Due to the sheer cost and complexity of stem cell cloning research and development through to a commercially available product, very few companies are involved with this challenging type of biotechnology.

And those that are involved have had plenty of problems and delays to contend with. For example, back in 2010, insufficient results and inadequate funding forced the UK company Intercytex to cancel its phase III trials and close down its hair regeneration business.

Other companies that have been leading the way include: Aderans Research Institute (ARI), Histogen Inc. and Replicel Life Sciences.

And you can read all about some of their progress (and problems) on the next page.

This is page 1 of 2.

Read final page? Hair Cloning – Latest News on Clinical Studies.

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Note: Images for illustrative purposes only and do not necessarily represent actual cloning techniques.


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