Biologists from several startups are experimenting with cutting-edge genetic engineering techniques to tackle the age-old problem of baldness. The goal is to create new cells that can restore a person's ability to generate hair.
A startup called dNovo released a photo of a mouse showing a dense clump of human hair on its hairless body, the result of a transplant of what the company says are human hair stem cells.
The founder of the company is Ernesto Lujan, a biologist trained at Stanford University. By "genetically reprogramming" regular cells such as blood or fat, the researcher says he can generate components of the hair follicle. He needs to investigate the first results, but Lujan predicts that the technology will be able to "reverse the underlying cause of hair loss."
Hair: losing love
We are born with all of our hair follicles, but the stem cells that produce hair can be killed by aging, cancer, testosterone, genetic aberration, or other factors. And if these stem cells are destroyed, then it's up to the hair.
"Today we are aware that cells are a 'state' rather than a fixed entity," says Lujan. "This is why we can take cells from one state to another."
Reprogramming the cells?
The possibility of hair replacement is part of the broader scientific exploration against the symptoms of aging. In September I told you about Jeff Bezos' latest "trinket", those Altos Labs who want to rejuvenate people with genetic reprogramming. Other startups like Design they try to extend fertility by converting blood into human eggs.
The breakthrough dates back to 2000. That was the year that Shinya Yamanaka discovered a simple procedure to convert any type of tissue into pluripotent stem cells (winning a Nobel Prize in 2012 for this). The researchers realized that they could produce almost any type of cell, such as nerves and heart muscle, in unlimited quantities.
But there are problems. The formula for producing specific cells can present problems, and another problem is getting those cells back into the body. So far, there has been little evidence of reprogramming as a method of treatment. Researchers in Japan tried transplanting cells of the retina in blind people. Last November, a US company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, he said he could treat type 1 diabetes with an infusion of programmed beta cells, the type that responds to insulin.
How does the principle work with hair?
The idea of startups is to take ordinary cells from patients, such as skin cells, and turn them into hair-forming cells. Beyond dNovo, there is another company that works on mice and pigs to test the technology: it's called Stemson.
They could make a bang in an extraordinary market - about half of men suffer from baldness male, some from the age of 20. Even when women lose their hair (often due to more general thinning) they have a lot of self-esteem problems.
It is not a simple panorama
There are only a few medications on the market today that can really help with hair loss. Propecia e rogaine are two of these, but they too have limited effectiveness. A surgeon can remove strips of skin from a patient and transplant their follicles to a bald area.
Tomorrow, patients will receive lab-grown hair-forming cells, although at first it will be a tailor-made and very expensive process.
Meanwhile Karl Koehler, a professor at Harvard University, tries to get hair in a totally different way: grow organoids. Organoids are colonies of cells that organize themselves in a petri dish. Professor Koehler was trying to grow hair cells, but he got (classic, providential mistake that produces new discoveries) epidermis complete with follicles.
Eureka. Now his lab creates organoids that reach 2 millimeters in diameter, and contain hair follicles. She is trying to understand, however, why they grow with the hairs turned inwards. In short, there is still some work to be done.