The avant-garde in the fight against baldness is in a small tuft of black hair that timidly peeps out from the hairless back of a laboratory rat. These are the first hairs grown through the skin from hair follicles grown from reprogrammed human stem cells. 

Their growth was guided by a microscopic biodegradable 3D scaffold that acts as a tutor wrapping the bulb under the skin, according to a protocol developed at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla, California, which could pave the way for new cell therapies against hair loss.

Awarded at the conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), it was presented in detail by the Italian researcher Antonella Pinto who led the study. Already in 2015 the same research group coordinated by Alexey Terskikh had recreated the dermal papilla in the laboratory, that cluster of cells that regulates hair growth in the hair follicle: obtained from pluripotent human stem cells, through an uncontrolled process and everything from redefining, had led to the growth of subcutaneous hair. 

“Our new protocol overcomes all the technological challenges that had prevented us from transferring our discovery into the real world,” explains Terskikh.

“We now have a robust and well-controlled method of generating natural-looking hair that grows through the skin using an unlimited source of dermal papilla cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells”, i.e. adult cells collected with a simple blood sample and reprogrammed to come back girls. “This is a crucial turning point in the development of cell therapies for hair loss and regenerative medicine.”

The key to success lies in the use of a three-dimensional micro-scaffold made of the same material as the absorbable stitches: like a tutor, it controls the direction of hair growth and helps the stem to integrate into the skin. So far hair follicles have been obtained by combining human dermal papilla cells with mouse epithelial cells, but researchers are working to obtain human epithelial cells in order to obtain 100% human follicles ready to be transplanted.