Modern medicine is full of its share of miracles, from finding cures for diseases like hepatitis C to preventing mass infections through vaccines.
One area of future potential that researchers are only beginning to tap are stem cells — cells that have the ability to become various other types of cells in the body to repair damaged tissue, functioning both as a mechanic and the spare part.
They’re being explored for numerous applications, from rejuvenating worn knees to treating blood-based diseases, cancers, and immune disorders.
But there’s another application that researchers are exploring: hair loss.
Early-stage research shows some promise for using stem cells to grow hair, even when genetic problems make it nearly impossible.
However, if you’ve seen reports that recent breakthroughs mean stem cell treatments could be the cure for hair loss that science has been searching for, you may want to adjust your expectations.
The reality is such treatments are most likely years away — if they end up being used at all. In fact, they may not work on humans.
Positive results have only been shown in mice and haven’t yet been tested by more stringent scientific standards.
Using stem cells to treat hair loss
At the most recent annual meeting in June of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Alexey Terskikh, PhD, presented his findings from new research that appears to grow life-like hair in mice that don’t have hair because of genetic immunodeficiencies.
Terskikh, an associate professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys’ Development, Aging, and Regeneration Program in La Jolla, California, said he was able to grow hair on the mice using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or genetically reprogrammed adult cells that act like those found when the human body is just developing.
Terskikh’s research focused on dermal papilla cells, or those inside the hair follicle that control hair growth, thickness, and length.
By combining different skin and hair cells from mice and humans, Terskikh and his team used the same material as dissolvable stitches to create a “scaffold” to control which direction the hair grew into the skin. The result was hair growth in mice that were genetically programmed to be bald.
“This is a critical breakthrough in the development of cell-based hair loss therapies and the regenerative medicine field,” Terskikh said in a press release.
Terskikh took his discovery and co-founded Stemson Therapeutics, a new company that plans to license the technology for commercial application.
But Dr. David Jin, CEO and president of Avalon GloboCare, says Terskikh’s research isn’t much of a breakthrough, as Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012 for his discovery of iPSCs. Terskikh’s research builds off that.
“While this may be a breakthrough in terms of their own initial research, they still have a long way to go,” Jin told Healthline. “There is a long journey between researching on animal models to being able to apply the research to humans.”
Dr. Anthony Oro, hair loss and skin stem cell specialist at Stanford Health Care, said induced pluripotent cells are “a promising source” for potentially replacing cells damaged through genetic diseases, accidents or injuries, or aging — one such application being hair loss.
Oro and others are already using stem cells — including iPSCs — to create skin grafts for genetic skin diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa (a condition where the skin is fragile and prone to blistering), but they could also be used to help heal wounds and repair tissue.
“Because skin is accessible, it represents an attractive arena to test new types of therapies, and generating new hair would be an exciting advance,” Oro told Healthline.
As to the particular work performed by Terskikh and Stemson Therapeutics, Oro says he can’t comment on it specifically because it hasn’t been subjected to peer review and replicated by others, two major hurdles in objective science.
While Terskikh’s discovery may one day lead to new hair replacement technologies for the estimated 80 million U.S. people who have some type of hair loss, that day is not yet here.
Other ongoing research is also trying to find ways to help restore hair loss in people, whether from common baldness associated with aging to those caused by a malfunctioning immune system, such as alopecia.
For example, researchers at Columbia University recently announced findings from two studies, which included waking up dormant hair cells in mice and growing hair in a dish, which may be useful for future hair transplant surgery. But, again, those results have yet to be tested on humans.
Nevertheless, as research and technology progress, the days of hair-like spray powder sold on late-night infomercials or painful hair plug treatments may soon be a distant memory.
What treatments are available today?
One of the oldest over-the-counter treatments for hair loss in the United States is Rogaine, whose active ingredient, minoxidil, is now being marketed by other companies like Hims and Keeps.
It’s a topical solution or foam that’s applied directly to the scalp to coax hair follicles to once again sprout new growth. But, as the Mayo Clinic points out, it takes about six months of use to see any results.
A month’s supply costs about $22 at most retailers.
It — like the prescription pill Propecia — often begins with even more hair loss before shorter and finer hairs are afforded the opportunity to grow out.
Generic versions of Propecia, which uses the active ingredient finasteride, can be purchased online for as little as $30 a month. But Propecia also has common side effects like diminished sex drive and sexual function, as it interferes with a man’s testosterone production.
Another option for people experiencing partial hair loss is hair replacement surgery.
While expensive and often painful, it takes hair follicles from the back of a person’s scalp and surgically attaches them to parts where balding occurs.
Currently, there aren’t many options — or at least ones that aren’t that invasive or don’t require regular and sustained use — so what’s the likelihood of seeing stem cells as part of the current hair loss treatment market?
Mac Fadra, CEO of National Stem Cell Centers, says stem cell therapy for hair loss — and the research associated with it — is in the “very early stages.”
“Stem cell therapy for hair loss has become a hot topic at hair restoration conferences with several papers, presentations, and publications in play,” he told Healthline.
To move from hot topics at conferences to applicable treatments involves numerous hurdles, including filing for an Investigational New Drug (IND) Application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which Fadra explains is essentially a clinical trial that becomes an authorized vehicle for approved clinical research for the treatment of specific conditions.
Currently, he says, there are no known INDs for using stem cells to treat hair loss and “no empirical evidence to support their effectiveness in the treatment of hair loss.”
But the potential future use of stem cells in treating hair loss does open up possibilities for using them in treating underlying conditions that cause hair loss, including autoimmune disorders such as lichen planus, lichen planopilaris, alopecia, lupus, and others.
“If FDA-approved INDs and clinical trials can prove that stem cell therapy alleviates autoimmune conditions or symptoms associated with them, this would be a boon for both patients and providers because patients with hair loss attributed to such autoimmune conditions who aren’t good candidates for a hair transplant could benefit from stem cell therapy,” Fadra said.
In other words, experts say the new research into using stem cells to treat hair loss may be promising and there’s a large commercial market for its application — but the science behind it isn’t there yet.