Laboratory-grown hair cells can be used to treat baldness

A key breakthrough came in the early 2000s, when Japanese researchers found a simple formula for transforming any type of tissue into powerful stem cells similar to those in the embryo. Imaginations swirled. Scientists have realized that they can potentially produce unlimited reserves of almost any type of cell – say nerves or heart muscle.

In practice, however, the formula for producing specific cell types can be elusive, and then the problem arises of returning the cells grown in the laboratory back to the body. So far, there are only a few demonstrations of reprogramming as a method of treating patients. Researchers in Japan have tried to transplant retinal cells into blind people. Then, last November, the American company Vertex Pharmaceuticals said that it may have cured type 1 diabetes in men after an infusion of programmed beta cells, the type that respond to insulin.

The concept pursued by start-ups is to collect simple cells from patients, say skin, and then convert them into hair-forming cells. In addition to dNovo, a company called Stemson (named after the stem cell portmanteau and Samson) has raised $ 22.5 million, including from pharmaceutical company AbbVie. Co-founder and CEO Jeff Hamilton says his company transplants reprogrammed cells into the skin of mice and pigs to test the technology.

Both Hamilton and Luoyang believe there is a significant market. About half of men undergo male pattern baldness, some starting in their 20s. When women lose hair, it is often a more general thinning, but no less a blow to a man’s self-image.

These companies bring high-tech biology into an industry known for illusions. There are many false claims about both hair loss remedies and stem cell potential. “You need to be aware of the proposals for fraud,” wrote Paul Knopfler, a stem cell biologist at UC Davis, in November.

Close-up of a skin organelle that is covered with hair follicles.


Complex work

So, will stem cell technology cure baldness or become the next false hope? Hamilton, the founder of Stemson, was invited to present the keynote address at this year’s World Hair Loss Summit and said he had tried to emphasize that the company still has many research executives. “We saw so much [people] come in and say they have a solution. This has happened a lot in my hair, so I have to deal with it, ‚ÄĚsays Hamilton. “We are trying to project to the world that we are real scientists and that it is so risky that I cannot guarantee that it will work.

There are currently some approved hair loss medications, such as Propecia and Rogaine, but they are of limited use. Another procedure involves a surgeon who cuts strips of skin from where the person still has hair and transplants these follicles onto a bald spot. Luyang says that in the future, hair-forming cells grown in the laboratory could be added to the head of a person with a similar operation.

“I think people will go a long way to get their hair back. But in the beginning, it will be a custom process and very expensive, “said Carl Koehler, a professor at Harvard University.

Hair follicles are surprisingly complex organs that arise through the molecular connection between several types of cells. And Koehler says pictures of mice growing human hair are not new. “Every time you see these images,” says Koehler, “there’s always a trick and a drawback to translating them to people.”

Koehler’s laboratory makes hair in a completely different way – by growing organelles. Organoids are small patches of cells that self-organize into a Petri dish. Koehler says he originally studied drugs for deafness and wanted to grow hair-like cells in the inner ear. But his organelles eventually turned into skin, along with hair follicles.

Koehler embraced the incident and is now creating spherical skin organelles that grow in about 150 days and become quite large – about two millimeters in diameter. Tube-like hair follicles are clearly visible and, he says, are the equivalent of the fluffy hair that covers the fetus.

One surprise is that the organelles grow backwards, with the hairs pointing inwards. “You can see architecture for beautification, although why they grow from the inside out is a big question,” says Koehler.

The Harvard laboratory uses a supply of reprogrammed cells identified by a 30-year-old Japanese man. But he examines cells from other donors to see if organelles can produce hair with distinctive colors and textures. “There is an absolute demand for it,” says Koehler. “Cosmetic companies are showing interest. Their eyes light up when they see the organelles. “

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