Stem cells to cure baldness?
I get asked all kinds of questions as a blogging professor including about the use of stem cells for cloning of humans, sexual enhancement of some kind (see posts here and here) and even that question above about stem cells to cure baldness.
Many want to know if a real baldness treatment is coming based on stem cells. Every few years I do an update on that topic and that’s the focus of today’s post. You can see my past posts on this topic here and here. How much is hype versus hope versus something in the middle?
The drug finasteride really does regrow hair for some people by changing androgen signaling and inhibiting production of dihydrotestosterone, and this may affect stem cells in the hair follicle. But what about new options involving stem cells?
Conceptually, several things makes the idea of using stem cells to treat baldness very attractive. Individual hairs grow and regrow directly via stem cells in the follicle, and a lot is known about those particular dermal stem cells. This means that in theory we could grow a lot of new hair in bald people if we were confident about tackling hurdles: we could reproducibly produce enough of those “hair stem cells” for lack of a better term to address large areas of baldness, we had a good way to transplant the cells in the right place in the dermis, we had evidence that they’ll just make hair and associated structures (and not say a non-malignant, but harmful tumor of skin scar tissue), and finally that they’d stick around for many years.
Evidence is accumulating that achieving these four goals may be possible in the coming decade so I think right now there’s a mixture of both real hope and hype out there on this front. As to real hope, for instance, scientists have grown human hair in bald areas on rodents (see image at left). You can see that paper here, which was a big step forward in 2012 and another similar paper just came out this year.
In addition to the possible approach of using hair stem cells discussed above, the other idea of using specific drugs to stimulate hair growth via existing stem cells already in our bodies is very cool and promising as well. There is a ton of research in this area and a recent paper from UCSF on connecting hair and baldness with T cells caught my eye (see image below).
But there are many supposed baldness cures out there including via stem cells, mostly related to extracts of various kinds including of plant stem cells, that in my opinion seem less likely to do any good and often are very expensive. Do any of those treatments, creams, etc. including some from big name companies work? I don’t know. Has anyone tried those? There are quite a few products available on Amazon for a search for one of the ingredients often mentioned to affect hair with some role for stem cells called Stemoxydine. I’m skeptical. There are no search results on Pubmed for this compound.
Surprisingly given how many millions of people deal with hair loss including both men and women, and because of medical conditions (not just those of us losing hair not liking how it looks) there are relatively few clinical trials for searches on clincialtrials.gov for “stem cells” and “baldness.” Back in 2014 I had found 6 trials, while now today in 2017 there are only 10, and mostly they either aren’t active or aren’t directly related to “stem cells for baldness” as we think of it.
To go from hope to really helping bald people, you need clinical trials so that’s something to closely look at in coming years.