The Daily Mail, one of the feistier UK tabloid papers, recently blasted this headline across its health pages:
Would that it were true. According to the Huffington Post, 80 million Americans “suffer from hair loss.” For Canada, then, about 8 million people are hiding hairless heads under their hockey toques. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.)
The article is based on research conducted at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and published in Nature. In a nutshell, Dr. Xiaowei “George” Xu, converted human skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells to produce large quantities of epithelial stem cells, which are normally found in hair follicles. When transferred to mice, the cells created “recognizable” shafts of hair.
How recognizable is debatable. But still, this represents an advance.
However, Dr. Xu urged caution: “We have solved one major problem, the epithelial component of the hair follicle. We need to figure out a way to also make new dermal papillae cells, and no one has figured that part out yet.”
Dr. Jeff Biernaskie (pictured at right) of the University of Calgary agrees. Any cure for baldness, he says, would have to incorporate re-invigorating dermal cell function.
“The problem is the dysfunction of these inductive dermal cells. Essentially, they either start providing wrong signals or they die off or atrophy. So the therapy that needs to be championed is actually restoring the function of dermal papillae cells. You need to revitalize those cells to restore hair growth.”
Dr. Biernaskie is not focused on finding new ways for follicles to grow on the heads of bald people. His lab is trying to decode how stem cells work to rebuild skin tissue for burn survivors, or people with chronic non-healing ulcers.
The reality, however, is that any stem cell researcher who could come up with a cure for hair loss would have the cosmetics industry pounding down their door. There would be billions of dollars to be made from such discovery — enough to set a researcher up for life, allowing him or her focus on tackling problems that can’t be solved with a wig or expensive hair transplants. “To be honest, I don’t know what could happen,” says Dr. Biernaskie, “but probably you would be financially set.”
Meanwhile, he and researchers around the world are trying to figure out the dermis puzzle.
“The reason we are working on dermis is that, while it’s a key target for restoring hair growth for conditions like androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness), it’s also critical for maintaining proper epidermal cell function and overall skin health. So if you can understand how to regenerate the epidermis and the dermis without forming scars and potentially generating new appendages (like follicles and glands) within that skin, that’s sort of a Holy Grail.”
Until then, the search continues. As does being bald.