Local Researchers Step Closer to Baldness Cure

Penn scientists say they have unlocked the first door for humans to regrow their own hair

Local medical researchers say they are a step closer to finding a cure for one of the most common cosmetic plights – baldness.

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine say they successfully converted adult cells into stem cells that regrew human skin cells, hair follicles and a hair shaft. That’s a first, according to researchers.

As part of the process, the team led by Professor George Xu implanted the converted stem cells, called epithelial stem cells, onto mice. Those cells, when grafted onto the mice, grew the human skin and the hair follicles, which researchers say were "structurally similar to human hair."

The professor, who credits his team of four researchers and other collaborators across the university with helping to make the breakthrough, says before this new method, doctors were able to produce only a limited number of the epithelial stem cells.

"We’re for the first time able to make an unlimited amount of epithelial stem cells," Xu said, which better facilitates hair regrowth. "The cells we use are from the same patient. We can just take some skin that we can make into stem cells."

Baldness affects half of all men by the time they turn 50-years-old, Xu says. As many as 30 million American women also suffer from hair loss. In 2012, an estimated $1.9 billion was spent worldwide on hair restoration, according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery.

While the results are encouraging, the researchers say there are still hurdles to overcome before the process can be tested on humans and before baldness can be reversed.

There are two parts to regenerating human hair, according to Xu. The first is developing the outer structures with the epithelial cells. Next is a second set of cells, called dermal papillae cells, which assist in facilitating growth.

"So far, we cannot make the dermal part. And we’re working on it," Xu said.

Xu hopes that in the next five to 10 years, his team will be able to unlock the creation of dermal papillae stem cells and then provide a viable way to regenerate a person’s own hair.

“The hope is to make these personalized hair follicles in a research lab and then we will implant them into the patient,” Xu says.

While the research has been focused on regenerating hair growth, the methods also have the potential to help in other areas of the medical world. Xu says the methods his team is developing  could help with healing wounds and burns as well as fixing cosmetic issues in people.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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