Baldness could soon be a thing of the past thanks to a pioneering technique developed with the help of scientists in the North East.
Researchers at Durham University joined forces with Columbia University Medical Center in America to devise a unique method that generates new hair follicles.
The follicles grow naturally from clumps of cells called dermal papillae that play a key role in hair growth.
Scientists harvested these from seven human donors, cloned them in the laboratory, and transplanted them into human skin grafted onto the backs of mice.
It is believed that the technique could help to expand the use of hair transplantation to women with hair loss, who tend to have insufficient donor hair, as well as to men in early stages of baldness.
Study co-author Prof Colin Jahoda, in the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University, said: “We need to establish the origins of the critical intrinsic properties of the newly induced hairs, such as their hair cycle kinetics, colour, angle, positioning, and texture.
“We also need to establish the role of the host epidermal cells that the dermal papilla cells interact with, to make the new structures.”
In five of the seven tests, the transplants resulted in new hair growth that lasted at least six weeks. DNA analysis confirmed that the new hair follicles were human and a genetic match to the donors.
Prof Jahoda, who is also co-director of the North East Stem Cell Institute, added: “Ultimately, we think that this study is an important step toward the goal of creating a replacement skin that contains hair follicles for use with, for example, burn patients.”
Although the research is at an early stage, the British and American team is confident clinical trials could begin “in the near future”.
Prof Angela Christiano, from Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, said: “Current hair-loss medications tend to slow the loss of hair follicles or potentially stimulate the growth of existing hairs, but they do not create new hair follicles.
“Neither do conventional hair transplants, which relocate a set number of hairs from the back of the scalp to the front.
“Our method, in contrast, has the potential to actually grow new follicles using a patient’s own cells.
This could greatly expand the utility of hair restoration surgery to women and to younger patients – now it is largely restricted to the treatment of male-pattern baldness in patients with stable disease.”
The technique may offer hope to the prospect of developing new treatments for burns victims, the scientists say.
Prof Jahoda said more work was needed to explore the properties of hair generated by newly grown follicles, and the interaction between transplanted dermal papillae and host cells.