A key breakthrough came in the early 2000s, when Japanese researchers found a simple formula for converting any type of tissue into powerful, embryo-like stem cells. Imagination ran wild. Scientists realized that they could potentially make unlimited supplies of almost any type of cell, for example, nerves or heart muscle.
In practice, however, the formula for producing specific cell types can be elusive, and then there is the problem of getting lab-grown cells back into the body. Until now, there have been only a few demonstrations of reprogramming as a method of treating patients. Researchers in Japan attempted to transplant retinal cells in blind. Then, last November, an American company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, said that could have cured a man’s type 1 diabetes after an infusion of programmed beta cells, the type that responds to insulin.
The concept being pursued by the startups is to harvest ordinary cells from patients, say skin, and then turn them into hair-forming cells. In addition to dNovo, a company called Stemson (its name is a portmanteau of Stem Cell and Samson) has raised $22.5 million, including from pharmaceutical company AbbVie. Co-founder and CEO Geoff Hamilton says his company is transplanting reprogrammed cells into the skin of mice and pigs to test the technology.
Both Hamilton and Luján believe that there is an important market. About half of men experience male pattern baldness, some starting in their 20s. When women lose hair, it’s often a more general thinning, but no less a blow to a person’s self-image.
These companies are bringing high-tech biology to an industry known for wishful thinking. There are many false claims about hair loss remedies and the potential of stem cells. “Beware of fraudulent offers,” Paul Knoepfler, a UC Davis stem cell biologist, wrote in november.
So will stem cell technology cure baldness or become the next false hope? Hamilton, the founder of Stemson, was invited to give the keynote address at this year’s conference. World Summit on Hair Loss, and says he tried to emphasize that the company still has a lot of research heads. “We have seen so many [people] come in and say you have a solution. That’s happened in hair a lot, so I have to address it,” says Hamilton. “We’re trying to project to the world that we’re real scientists and that it’s risky to the point where I can’t guarantee it’s going to work.”
At this time, there are some approved medications for hair loss, such as Propecia and Rogaine, but they have limited use. Another procedure involves a surgeon cutting strips of skin from where a person still has hair and transplanting those follicles into a bald area. Lujan says that in the future, lab-grown hair-forming cells could be added to the head of a person having similar surgery.
“I think people will go to great lengths to get their hair back. But at first it will be a personalized and very expensive process,” says Karl Koehler, a professor at Harvard University.
Hair follicles are surprisingly complicated organs that arise through molecular crosstalk between various cell types. And Koehler says images of mice with human hair are not new. “Whenever you see these images,” Koehler says, “there’s always a trick and some snag to translating them to humans.”
Koehler’s lab makes hair shafts in an entirely different way: by growing organoids. Organoids are small droplets of cells that self-organize in a Petri dish. Koehler says that he was originally studying cures for deafness and wanted to grow the hair-like cells of the inner ear. But his organoids ended up becoming skin, complete with hair follicles.
Koehler embraced the accident and now creates spherical-skinned organoids that grow over about 150 days and become quite large, about two millimeters across. The tube-shaped hair follicles are clearly visible and, he says, are the equivalent of the soft hair that covers the fetus.
One surprise is that the organoids grow backwards, with the hairs pointing inwards. “You can see beautified architecture, although why they grow from the inside out is a big question,” says Koehler.
The Harvard lab uses a supply of reprogrammed cells created by a 30-year-old Japanese man. But he is looking at cells from other donors to see if the organoids could generate hair with distinctive colors and textures. “There is absolute demand,” says Koehler. “Cosmetic companies are interested. Their eyes light up when they see the organoids.”