Japanese Companies Team Up to Perfect Methods of Growing Hair Follicles in the Lab
Is their aim to put technologies into practical use by the year 2020 realistic? Expect to hear more in the coming years about “follicular regeneration medicine.” It is a rapidly growing area of inquiry among scientists and there are big business interests getting involved. Scientists have demonstrated they can regenerate certain body parts in the lab, including hair follicles from mice. Led by Takashi Tsuji, Ph.D., of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, the team calls the process “the established organ primordium method.” Without getting too technical, the idea is to use stem cells from harvested hair follicles from a patient’s scalp to create many times more follicles in the lab that can then be used for transplant. If this concept is proven to work, it could help overcome the primary limiting factor in helping us restore a patient’s confidence: the availability of donor hair follicles. As we have said in the past, patients who need the most donor follicles have the least. But if we could generate many times more follicles in the lab using the established organ primordium method, it would be a game changer. As we always are careful to do, we caution against celebrating too early. These methods have not been tested on humans and there is a lot of work yet to be done, not to mention big questions about how expensive methods such as these might be. Driving this buzz is a joint announcement in July 2016 from Kyocera Corporation, RIKEN national science institute andOrgan Technologies Inc. of a partnership to develop technologies and products that regenerate hair. From the news release: “…a small number of hair follicles will be collected, from which stem cells will be isolated, cultured and amplified to produce hair follicle germ by the established organ primordium method. The regenerated hair follicle germ will be packaged and delivered to a medical facility for use in transplantation therapy for the patient.” Here is what we know from the team’s published papers so far:
- In 2007, Takashi Tsuji and his research group developed organ primordium technology, a three-dimensional cell manipulation technology for the regeneration of an organ primordium.
- In 2012, the research team isolated epithelial stem cells and follicle dermal papilla cells from the follicles of mature mouse whiskers and body hair and, using organ primordium technology, they successfully regenerated follicular primordium.
- The team also successfully transplanted the regenerated follicular primordium into hairless mice, demonstrating the feasibility of hair shaft regeneration.
- Scientists observed that the transplanted primordium forms connections with surrounding tissues and repeats normal hair cycles.
Now it appears RIKEN, in partnership with Kyocera and Organ Technologies are ready for human testing and the development of processes and technologies that are proven safe, effective and repeatable. According to one story from Nikkei Asian Review, “Kyocera to join hair regeneration research project,” company officials and scientists believe it may be possible to generate 100 to 1,000 times the number of hair follicles in the lab. Therefore, at least in concept, for every 100 hair follicles we extract, the lab could be able to generate 10s of thousands of follicles for transplant. While much has been made of the partnership’s declaration of their aim to put technologies into practical use by the year 2020 (just four short years from now), we expect that testing on human subjects will take much longer than that. It is not unusual for the process to take a decade or more. It is also worth noting that they are involved in other important work that can have enormous societal benefits. The BBC reported on RIKEN’s success growing skin in the lab, published in the journal Science Advances. The April 2016 story, “Promising lab-grown skin sprouts hair and grows glands,” stated that Takashi Tsuji dreams of re-growing personalized organs for transplant. We look forward to seeing how these scientific advances take shape in the years ahead and wish Mr. Tsuji and his team the best of luck.