Although haircare companies might tell you otherwise, there’s no silver bullet cure for thinning hair. Whether it’s tried-and-true remedies like Rogaine or new startups like Hims, most of these products merely slow hair loss or thicken thinning strands. They can’t actually prevent it, or bring back all your lost hair. But that may soon change. Emerging research shows that stem cells—cells that have the potential to develop into other kinds of cells—could be the key to regrowing real, healthy hair once your mane has thinned out.
Stem cells hold promise, since they’re how the body produces hair naturally. According to an article by James Hamblin, M.D., a preventive medicine physician and staff writer at The Atlantic, it takes thousands of stem cells, called dermal papillae, in each hair follicle to product a single hair. Over time, these dermal papillae disappear, making the follicle dormant; lots of dormant follicles cause baldness. Currently, hair transplants are the only way to really address bald spots, but the treatment is expensive and has limited success.
Generating new, healthy strands is the holy grail of hair-loss prevention, and recent research shows that stem cells could be a viable way to do it. The research is based on cell therapy, where a person’s own stem cells are taken from their blood, then used to grow tissues they need, such as insulin-producing pancreatic tissue for people with Type 1 diabetes. Theoretically, it could work for hair, too.
A company called Stemson Therapeutics is working on such a treatment. The company is developing “hair farms,” where stem cells taken from blood samples are used to grow healthy hair follicles, which can then be implanted on a person’s scalp, Hamblin explains in The Atlantic. The company has already completed successful implants of human hair on mice.
Even then, it’s not so easy. Growing hair follicles in the lab is tricky. If the cells aren’t kept in close proximity to each other, they won’t produce hair.
“The epiphany was that if you can keep the cells together in their teardrop shape so they continue to signal each other, they continue to grow into hair follicles,” Robert Bernstein, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist, told The Atlantic.
Then once the new follicle is ready, it has to be implanted at a precise angle in the skin. Otherwise the hair will become ingrown or grow out at an unnatural angle.
“Simply putting the follicle in the skin means a lot of ingrown hairs and lots of weird directions,” said Geoff Hamilton, CEO of Stemson Therapeutics.
Fortunately, new research addresses that problem, too. Hamilton’s company is developing a synthetic scaffold that can support the follicle once it’s implanted and keep the hair growing at the right angle. The company has partnered with Allergan, a major pharmaceutical firm, to create the device, and they’re expecting to begin trials on humans in about a year and a half.
Another solution is Jell-O. Angela Christiano, a professor of genetics and dermatology at Columbia, has developed a 3D-printed Jell-O mold that holds the follicle in place as the stem cells start to grow hair. She published her findings in the journal Nature Communications this past December, and wrote that the mold could have a “transformative impact” on regrowing hair.
Could these new methods finally bring about a real cure for hair loss? It’s still too early to say for sure, but the experts are hopeful.
“It’s a huge breakthrough,” Bernstein told The Atlantic. “There are many other factors that have to be worked out, but this certainly is really exciting.”