Though common, hair loss is a distressing disorder. It can dent a person’s confidence and provoke feelings of depression. Now, researchers from Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, say they are one step closer to a new treatment for the condition; they have found a way to generate new hair using human pluripotent stem cells.

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Transplanting hPSC-derived dermal papilla cells into mice induced new hair growth, the researchers found.
Image credit: Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

We all lose hair – around 50-100 hairs each day, on average. But for some people, hair loss can be much more severe, causing partial or complete baldness.

The most common form of hair loss, also referred to as alopecia, is hereditary hair loss, in which a person inherits the condition from their mother or father. This affects more than 50 million men and 30 million women in the US.

Other causes of hair loss include extreme stress, medical conditions – such as thyroid disorders, anemia and psoriasis – and use of certain medications.

Current treatments for hair loss include hair restoration medication, though the results vary in each patient. Another treatment is hair transplantation, which involves removing hair follicles from one area of the head with normal hair growth and placing them in an area that lacks growth.

In this latest study, Alexey Terskikh, PhD, associate professor in the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford-Burnham, and colleagues reveal how they effectively grew new hair using human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) – cells derived from human embryos or human fetal tissue that can become any other cell type in the body.

They say the technique – detailed in the journal PLOS ONE – has the potential to be more effective than current hair transplant methods.

Terskikh and colleagues created a technique that encouraged hPSCs to turn into dermal papilla cells, which are responsible for regulating the formation of hair follicles and the hair growth cycle.

On transplanting these dermal papilla cells into mice, the team found they successfully induced new hair growth.

The researchers note that because adult dermal papilla cells cannot be gathered in large quantities and quickly lose their ability to trigger hair follicle formation in culture, they are unsuitable for hair transplants. But these findings suggest a technique that may get around this problem. Terskikh says:

We have developed a method using human pluripotent stem cells to create new cells capable of initiating human hair growth. The method is a marked improvement over current methods that rely on transplanting existing hair follicles from one part of the head to another.

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.”

The researchers say they now plan to transplant the hPSC-derived dermal papilla cells back into humans to test their effectiveness. “We are currently seeking partnerships to implement this final step,” adds Terskikh.

There are some major advancements happening in treatment for hair loss. In August 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming a bone marrow disease drug restored hair loss in patients with alopecia areata – a disease in which the immune system attacks the hair follicles.

In another study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania revealed how they created hair-follicle-generating stem cells, which show potential for regrowing hair in humans.