Can stem cells some day cure baldness?
This is about more than vanity. Baldness can also be due to a medical condition or a side effect of a treatment of another kind.
Many medical procedures such as radiation treatment for brain cancer or chemo as well as medical conditions such as burns or alopecia cause baldness, strongly affecting the self-esteem and quality of life of millions of patients.
Of course for the vast majority of people affected by baldness they simply get bald as they age and are unhappy about it.
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of hype about the idea of using stem cells to treat baldness and cosmetics companies are behind most of that as they seek to cash in on excitement about stem cells and the willingness of the bald to spend a lot of money on potential treatments.
At the same time there is also real reason for optimism that stem cells from the skin that make hair might be widely used for treating or even curing baldness, but again we are talking about in 10 or 20 years. Update: Oddly enough, only 6 clinical trials are listed for a search for “stem cells” AND “baldness” and only 2 are recruiting. How is that possible/
About once a year I publish a piece on the prospects for stem cells to treat baldness. So far in 2014 I haven’t really seen any major progress on this front in terms of publications or significant breakthroughs. Bummer.
So looking to the future then, how might stem cell procedures for baldness work?
Two main approaches seem conceptually promising.
First, there is the possibility of autologous stem cell therapy for baldness.
Second, there is a very real possibility of a drug stimulating hair growth by making the hair follicle stem cells be more active.
In the former case, research on specialized skin stem cells that can grow hair has been advancing at a rapid clip.
In stem cell-based approach for baldness, instead of moving hairs as is done today with hair transplants, doctors would transplant hair stem cells into bald regions and the stem cells would grow new hairs from scratch.
Alternatively, doctors may use some of the patient’s own stem cells to grow skin with big hairs growing out of it in a lab and then transplant those together as a tissue into balding areas of the scalp. If these technologies can be realized, stem cell-based baldness procedures could make a lot of people very happy and this may turn into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Despite claims from companies such as L’Oreal that they have baldness treatments using stem cells that work today, I have yet to see evidence that sways (or should I say combs over) my opinion that when it comes to using stem cell to treat baldness, we are definitely not there yet.
Nonetheless stay tuned as I think real progress will be made in coming years.
A version this post was first published in 2013.