Hair loss may no longer be a life sentence.

The breakthrough comes from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), where researchers successfully grew human hair by mimicking a cell behavior that is thought to give rodents perpetual hair growth—a method that is particularly exciting for women experiencing hair loss.

The secret lies in dermal papillae cells, which help form and nourish hair follicles. When human cells of this kind are transplanted, they revert to basic skin cells and lose the ability to birth new follicles. But when the same is done to rodent dermal papillae cells, they form clumps that scientists think allow the papillae to interact and release signals that reprogram skin to grow new hair follicles.

“This suggested that if we cultured human papillae in such a way as to encourage them to aggregate the way rodent cells do spontaneously, it could create the conditions needed to induce hair growth in human skin,” says first author Claire A. Higgins, Ph.D., associate research scientist.

While the idea had been hypothesized by scientists for about 40 years, no team had successfully translated the idea in experiments. Until now.

The CUMC group harvested and cloned cells from seven human donors into tissue culture. After a few days, the new cultured papillae were transplanted in human skin that had been grafted onto the backs of mice. In five of the seven tests, new hair growth emerged that lasted at least six weeks. The researchers used DNA technology to confirm that the new hairs were human, and genetically matched the donors.

The news is major for the hair loss industry, where current treatments can only move existing hair follicles from one part of the scalp to another (aka, hair plugs), stimulate growth in still-active follicles, or just simply slow the rate of hair thinning. The approach could significantly expand the use of hair transplantation to women with hair loss, who tend to have insufficient donor hair.

“This approach has the potential to transform the medical treatment of hair loss,” says co-study leader Angela M. Christiano, Ph.D., a Richard and Mildred Rhodebeck Professor of Dermatology and professor of genetics & development. “Our method…could make hair transplantation available to individuals with a limited number of follicles, including those with female-pattern hair loss, scarring alopecia, and hair loss due to burns.”

Unfortunately, the treatment isn’t quite ready for primetime yet since a consistent and tested methodology still needs establishing—but the team is optimistic that clinical trials could begin in the near future.

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