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A Blood Draw Could Someday Generate Human Hair Follicles

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Anyone interested in the science related to hair restoration should get acquainted with the concept of 3D printed biodegradable scaffolds. The latest discovery is that these scaffolds can play a critically important role in helping stem cells that originate from simple blood samples to integrate into the skin and control the direction of hair growth through the skin so it has a natural appearance.

Antonella Pinto, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, recently presented her team’s findings at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). Here is the news release, with the headline, “Functional Hair Follicles Grown from Stem Cells.”

The latest discovery builds on Dr. Alexey Terskikh’s work that was announced nearly five years ago, but ran into complications. Last year, Dr. Terskikh co-founded Stemson Therapeutics, which has licensed the technology. Stemson announced a “significant investment” from medical aesthetics giant Allergan in June.

Dr. Terskikh’s process starts with a blood sample to capture a patient’s blood cells, which go through a process known as induced pluripotency. This reprograms the cells to revert into stem cells – or more specifically induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This pluripotent state is important because it enables the development of an unlimited source of any type of human cell needed for therapeutic purposes.

For hair restoration purposes, this process can produce an unlimited supply of dermal papilla cells. These are cells located inside the hair follicle, controlling hair growth, thickness, length and growth cycle. Back in 2015, Dr. Terskikh announced he had successfully used human iPSCs to grow hair beneath the skin of mice, but the experiments ran into complications. The hairs grew in random directions and failed to penetrate the skin. Obviously, more work was necessary.

Fast forward to 2019 and the perfection of 3D printed scaffold technology in recent years. Now, you might think of scaffolds used in construction, going up the side of a building. The scaffolds used by these scientists are microscopic tools used for all sorts of tissue regeneration because they provide structural support for cell attachment and tissue development. Scaffolds are made of the same type of material as dissolvable stitches, so they biodegrade and disappear harmlessly over time.

What Dr. Pinto announced at ISSCR was that by implanting scaffolds, researchers had succeeded in growing hair through the skin of mice in the lab. The stem cells had been reprogramed to become human dermal papilla cells, which properly integrated into the skin of the mice and the scaffolding helped to control to angle and direction of the hair growth.

“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,” said Dr. Terskikh in the news release. “This is a critical breakthrough in the development of cell-based hair-loss therapies and the regenerative medicine field.”

To be clear, the hair they grew wasn’t really human hair. It relied on mouse epithelial cells combined with human dermal papilla cells. The next step is to develop the epithelial part of the hair follicle from human IPSCs – using that same reprogramming process to turn blood cells into epithelial cells – and then pair them with human dermal papilla cells. If successful, this would result in the generation of entirely human hair follicles.

Now let’s put all this in perspective.

  • The prospect of having unlimited hair follicles that only require a patient to undergo a simple blood draw is tantalizing, but will it be an affordable option? The process of reprogramming human cells is currently expensive and inefficient.
  • This science is advancing slowly. While the successful use of scaffolding is a notable discovery, other areas of hair restoration science appear to have more momentum. For instance, our recent article on the development of “hair farms” (which also used 3D printers) reported on another method of generating unlimited follicles for transplantation.
  • Suggestions that this process has the potential for allogeneic transplants (transplants to someone other than the donor) appears to be purely theoretical. We haven’t found any evidence to support the idea that hair follicles resulting from IPSCs would be less likely to be rejected if transplanted.
  • Allergan’s potential involvement is interesting. We have not seen the major pharmaceutical players getting involved in other research efforts, so we will be curious to see how this relationship develops.

We at Arocha Hair Restoration congratulate Dr. Terskikh and his team at Sanford Burnham Prebys on their successes to date and wish them the best of luck as they continue pushing forward!