For the unhappily balding, a breakthrough enabling new human hair to be grown from human skin for the first time will be a welcome source of hope. After all, until now the only way to combat hair loss has been to transplant follicles from somewhere else on the body – a technique which presents no few difficulties, not least for typically less hirsute women.
Rodents were a different matter; growing new follicles in rat skin was achieved decades ago. But human hair was more of a challenge and only now, by using hanging drops of liquid rather than flat cultures, has the problem been cracked.
When the technique makes it out of the laboratory, it will mean that a patient’s own skin can be used to grow as many follicles as are needed; which is good news not only for those going bald as they age, but also for burns victims, say, and for people suffering from conditions such as alopecia.
Nor is this development only of interest in its potential to transform the treatment of hair loss, sufficient though that would be. It is also just the latest glimpse of the future of medicine. In the 20th century, organ transplants became ubiquitous life-saving technology. In the 21st, it will be the turn of regenerative medicine, based on cell transplants.
Progress is coming in leaps and bounds. Lab-grown bladders have reportedly already been implanted. The first engineered windpipe, grown with the help of stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow, also proved a success. And, just this year, adult cells have, for the first time, been reprogrammed as stem cells in a living body (admittedly a mouse).
There is some way to go, of course. But we have barely even begun to consider all the potential uses. Everything from diabetes to brain injury to blindness could perhaps be remedied. Lab-grown hair follicles are, then, a cause for celebration – both in themselves, and in what they indicate is about to come.