Baldness could soon be nothing more than a bad memory, thanks to a breakthrough by British scientists.
In research that could ‘transform’ the treatment of hair loss, they have found a way of cloning the tiny cells that contain the ‘instruction book’ for growing new hair.
In a world first, they have shown that when these lab-grown cells are put back into human skin, they sprout hair.
Although the work is at an early stage, the scientists from Durham University in the UK and Columbia University in the US, say it represents a real breakthrough in treating the hair loss that blights millions of men and women.
Options at the moment are limited to drugs and hair transplants. But drugs can have side-effects and hair transplants simply work with what is there, by redistributing existing hair.
In contrast, the new technique should actually boost the number of hairs on the head.
Columbia University researcher Dr Angela Christiano, who suffers from alopecia, in which clumps of hair fall out, said the work ‘has the potential to transform the medical treatment of hair loss’.
The team began by taking strips of human hair and extracting tiny cells called dermal papillae.
Found in clumps at the base of a hair, these cells contain the ‘instruction book’ for the growth of new hair.
The scientists then cloned the cells in a dish, until they had multiple copies of each one. Other scientists have done this before but then failed to get the lab-grown cells to sprout hair when put back into skin.
The UK-US team got over this hurdle by turning the dish of cells upside down, to encourage them to form into the clumps found in nature.
The clumps were then transplanted into human skin that had been grafted on the backs of mice.
Once there, they sent out the instructions needed for new hairs to grow.
Cells from all seven human donors sprouted fledgling hairs and, in two or three cases, the tufts broke through the skin, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.
The new hairs were white but Durham researcher Colin Jahoda says it should possible to produce coloured hair in future.
Starting with a sample of a person’s own cells should also mean that any new hair is a good match in terms of texture and curliness.
Professor Jahoda said: ‘There are a lot of technical hurdles to cross before using it as a cosmetic treatment but this is a very important step forward.’
It is hoped that the first human trials will start soon and that men and women will both eventually benefit from the new treatment. It is too early to say exactly how much it will cost but it could be cheaper than hair transplants which can cost up to £30,000 per patient, although the average price is £6,000 to £10,000.
Burns victims could also benefit, as replacement skin that is studded with hairs should be more functional than a completely smooth covering.
Although baldness is usually thought of as a male problem, some eight million British women are losing their hair.
Greg Williams, a hair transplant surgeon at the Farjo Hair Institute in London’ s Harley Street, said hair loss and thinning can be particularly devastating for women.
‘I can’t put enough emphasis on the fact that a woman’s hair is central to her psychological wellbeing, the confidence she has in her appearance and her sense of identity.’
Dr Williams said that hair transplants are often less suitable for women and the new technique ‘if it come to fruition, could be very, very beneficial for a lot of people’.
Prof Sheila MacNeil, of the University of Sheffield, said: ‘This is ground-breaking work.’
But Dr David Fenton of the British Association of Dermatologists warned that any treatment is still years away.
He said: ‘It is something for researchers to be excited about but not something that consumers should hold their breath for.’