Hair loss doesn’t have to be an inevitability of aging, at least if Stemson Therapeutics has anything to do with it. The company is using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to tackle baldness, and their progress so far is enough to sway even the most skeptical. iPSCs are adult cells that have been programmed to function like embryonic cells, which is when cells differentiate to form organs and tissues.
Image via Stemson Therapeutics
Get to Know Dermal Papilla Stem Cells
Millions of men, women and children in the United States experience hair loss in some form or another, for as many reasons. Although hair growth seems straight-forward enough, it’s actually fairly complicated. One single strand of hair requires thousands of dermal papilla stem cells to grow, and most all follicles have limited life spans. Hair follicles that have miniaturized or become dormant with time cannot be restored (in spite of any product or surgical claims otherwise).
“Our new protocol described today overcomes key technological challenges that kept our discovery from real-world use,” explained Alexey Terskikh, Ph.D., the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Stemson Therapeutics, after releasing results from his hair growth study at the Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in June.
“Now we have a robust, highly controlled method for generating natural-looking hair that grows through the skin using an unlimited source of human iPSC-derived dermal papilla cells. This is a critical breakthrough in the development of cell-based hair-loss therapies and the regenerative medicine field,” he continued.
The dermal papilla cell lives inside the hair follicle and is what actually controls hair growth, including how thick and long the hair will be, as well as its growth cycle – literally, nothing else will do this.
Image via Hair Loss Cure 2020
Hair Scaffolds + Stem Cells
In order to achieve previously impossible hair growth, Stemson relies on a 3D biodegradable scaffold, which is made from the same material as dissolvable stitches. The scaffold controls the direction of hair growth and also helps the stem cells integrate into the skin, which is a notoriously hard barrier to permeate. Once the scaffold dissolves, all that’s left is a head full of healthy-growing hair — or at least, that’s the hope.
This has not yet been tested on humans. In their study, Stemson combined mouse epithelial cells with human dermal papilla cells and grew a small tuft of hair in totally bald mice.
The company is currently working on combining human iPSC-derived epithelial and dermal papilla cells, which they hope will create entirely new human hair follicles, and would be unlike any other type of hair transplant or hair growth product on the market.
Eventually, the company would like customers to be able to grow hair using their own IPS cells, which could be accessed through drawing blood. This would eliminate any issue with the immune system rejecting the cells/hair. They would also like the cells to come from other donors, which they say would bring down costs, though this could present immune system difficulties.
“We haven’t cracked that code just yet,” CEO Geoff Hamilton told The Morning Call, who hopes for, what he described to The Atlantic as “hair farms.” There are still many variables that need to be controlled, as hair is an amazing organ with a number of different cell types. Once the company is able to test and confirm what yields the best hair – they can lock that in and begin on human trials, which will be several years out.
There’s still work to be done, but this is definitely promising, if only because it represents a step towards generating new hair follicles – for the first time ever.