Meet Paul Kemp. He may be about to announce what for bald men is the Holy Grail - a way of making hair grow again, using stem-cell technology.
Some 40 per cent of men over 50 are affected, and one in five women suffers from thinning hair. And though only 2 per cent of them opt for hair-loss treatments they spend about £1bn a year on them.
Dr Kemp began working from home on the problem six years ago, and so promising is his attempt to clone his way out of baldness that his firm, Intercytex, recently floated on the stock exchange and is valued at £60m.
Society has never been very kind to the hairless. Studies show that self-esteem, marriage chances and job opportunities suffer as a result of baldness.
The human head has about 100,000 follicles, from which hairs grow, fall out and re-grow. But after puberty each time the hair re-emerges it is thinner, shorter, and less pigmented. Eventually an enzyme switches the follicles off entirely.
Vain men have, throughout history, fought against this, but nothing worked - apart from wigs and toupees - until the first hair transplant in the 1950s. This painstakingly took individual hairs, or tiny clumps, from the back and side of the scalp and moved them up top. Early results looked terrible, with hair set in artificial grids or spokes, producing the infamous "Brillo pad" effect.
Improvements in technique mean hair transfers can now be undetectable to the casual observer. But they generally cost at least £5,000, can cause pain, bleeding and swelling and leave scars.
After studying biochemistry at Aberystwyth, Dr Kemp did post-doctoral work on collagen at Manchester before moving to the US to work on tissue engineering, where he spent 10 years trying to grow replacement skin. When stem-cell technology arrived, he realised cloning would revolutionise everything. He returned to Manchester and teamed up with an old university colleague, Nick Higgins, who is now the chief executive of Intercytex, and between them they dreamt up ideas for a range of new treatments. Intercytex has developed a replacement skin for use by surgeons and a product to accelerate the healing of wounds and is researching using cloning to remove wrinkles.
But on hair loss Paul Kemp had a personal stake in the research. While not exactly bald, as he approaches the age of 50 he has begun doing a bit of surreptitious combing forward. He knows what awaits him. "My Dad had a Bobby Charlton," he says.
Dr Kemp has tried his own new treatment for baldness. He bends forward to show two blue dots tattooed on top of his head, a couple of centimetres apart. "A normal head has around 200 hairs per square inch; lose half of them and people notice your hair is thinning," he says. On Dr Kemp's head an extra 66 hairs are now growing between the two blue dots. Reproduced across the pate that would turn a bald head into a normal-looking head of hair.
Safety trials are now complete. This month phase two trials - to discover the most effective dose - begin on 50 people in Manchester and Harley Street in London. Scientists at Intercytex are trying to create a cell bank to allow cells to be transferred from one individual to another. Intercytex is looking at robotics to automate the process.
In the near future that would mean an answer to the prayers of all those who crave a cure for baldness. In the longer term, says Dr Kemp, "I suspect it will become preventive, like dentistry. As soon as you show signs of thinning, you have the treatment. And it will be done at a stage where people won't know you've had it done."
For those in the next generation, like Dr Kemp's 12-year-old son Tristan, baldness could be a choice and not an affliction.
HOW THE TREATMENT WORKS
Hair is grown by the dermal papilla cells in skin. These can be removed and grown in a laboratory dish. Normally,these lab cells lose their ability to grow hairs, but add keratinocyte stem cells to the dermal papilla cells and the new cells are able to grow hairs when injected back into a bald head. Because no drugs are involved, and the human cells are unmodified, there are no side effects. New growth should become evident after three months. It should work on people too bald for a hair transplant and on women, whose hair thins out rather than being lost in a receding hairline.Reuse content