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An Update on Hair “Cloning” Predictions

Arocha_webWhat would you say if I told you that someday in your lifetime scientists will be able to take a piece of skin the size of a postage stamp and grow it in a laboratory to create enough skin cells to cover an entire football field?

This is not science fiction. It has already been proven feasible in humans. The implications are amazing. These laboratory grown cells could be used to treat numerous patients.

Likewise, if the cells of a hair follicle could be multiplied in the laboratory and placed back into the balding scalp, it may be possible to create thousands of hair follicles from an original follicle. No hair transplant patient would lack the necessary number of suitable donor follicles.

Now that we are more than three quarters of the way through 2011, we wanted to take a moment to share with you some thoughts about hair follicle cloning from Dr. Jerry Cooley, M.D., who is heavily involved in the subject. In our article, “Prediction for 2011: Further Advances in “Auto-Cloning” Hair,” published before the start of the year, we pointed toward potential developments in hair follicle cloning, so we wanted to provide this follow-up.

First, Dr. Cooley, in his paper presented at the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery’s 19th Annual Scientific Meeting, says that it is not accurate to describe the possibility of creating a large number of hair follicles from a single hair follicle as “hair follicle cloning.” Instead, the mechanism where a single hair follicle could be turned into hundreds or thousands of hair follicles is not ‘cloning’ but tissue engineering. It can also be described as cell therapy.

This is an important distinction and every interested person in the hair loss community should understand the differences.

The term cloning is used by scientists to refer to the technique where genes are inserted into a cell, and the daughter cells all have the same gene. In contrast, Cooley’s study of tissue engineering does not involve the insertion of particular genes but works at a higher level: the cell. While cells are the basic building blocks of life, genes are sequences of DNA which code for a particular protein necessary for the proper functioning of the cells of our bodies.

Cells can be isolated from an organism and then can be grown in the laboratory by keeping the cells bathed in special medium (culture medium) and controlling the amount of oxygen and other gases around the cells. Cell therapy consists of taking these cultured cells and placing them into a patient to correct a particular condition. Conditions that are likely to be treated by cell therapy include skin ulcers and burns, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, liver failure, to name a few. No wonder cell therapy is one of the most exciting areas of medical research today.

Several research groups around the world are actively trying to see how this idea could be used to treat hair loss. But Dr. Cooley points to two very important obstacles that must be understood, evaluated and overcome, including:

  • What the lab-grown hairs look like. If cell therapy were ever proven successful for producing hair growth, that would not be enough. It would have to produce natural looking hair. If they can’t ensure that the implanted cells produce hair that has the same cosmetic characteristics of the original hair, it will not be a success. Just as in hair transplantation procedures performed today, one key feature would be hair growth direction. The difference between an acceptable hair transplant and a truly superb, undetectable transplant can be as simple as the latter having hair growing at the natural acute angle to the skin. Even one-haired micrografts may not look natural if they grow straight up at a right angle.
  • Ensuring the lab-grown hairs are safe. The chief worry with using laboratory grown cells is that they might cause tumors when placed back into the skin, so the most important consideration for government regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be ensuring the safety of cell therapy for hair loss. So far cell therapy for other applications has not been known to be associated with tumor formation. Before granting approval, the FDA would require adequate proof that implanted hair follicle cells did not give rise to any tumors.

We agree with Dr. Cooley that the potential application of tissue engineering for treating human hair loss is exciting. However, this research is currently still in the most preliminary of stages and there are numerous obstacles that must be overcome in order to make this treatment safe and effective.

The potential for cell therapy to provide an answer to those experiencing hair loss is indeed great, but the finer points are sure to present challenges to researchers. We remain optimistic, but we believe it is realistic to expect many more years of basic research before we know what role cell therapy will play in the treatment of hair loss.