What is Hair Cloning?
Hair cloning is a promising treatment for androgenetic alopecia, or common genetic hair loss that is being actively researched by pioneering hair restoration physicians, like Dr. Bernstein in conjunction with Columbia University, hoping to be the first to develop a “cure” for hair loss. In hair cloning, a sample of a person’s germinative hair follicle cells are multiplied outside the body (in vitro), and then they are re-implanted into the scalp with the hope that they will grow new hair follicles and, thus, new permanent hair.
This fascinating field is not only interesting because of the rapidly-developing nature of the science of cloning hair, but, more specifically, because hair cloning methods have the potential to yield a treatment that effectively “cures” common hair loss -– something that scientists and physicians have been seeking for decades.
Hair cloning is a term that is often used to broadly describe a set of ideas on how to use laboratory techniques to solve the problem of hair loss. Technically, however, there is a difference between true hair cloning and the technique of hair multiplication for treating baldness. We will explore these differences in the next section.
What is Hair Multiplication?
In contrast to hair cloning, where germinative cells are multiplied outside the body in essentially unlimited amounts, in hair multiplication, donor hair follicles are removed from the scalp and then manipulated in a way that the total amount of hair is increased. This can involve using transected, or cut, hair follicles and implanting them directly into the scalp with the hope that the follicles will regenerate and grow a complete hair. Another technique uses plucked hair fragments rather than whole or transected follicles.
The concept behind hair multiplication using plucked hair is that it is an easy, non-invasive method of obtaining germinative cells. Also, the hair shaft of the plucked hair acts as a ready-made scaffold to introduce and align the germinative cells at the new site. The hope is that removing a small proportion of the germinative cells, through plucking, may provide enough tissue for the formation of a new follicle while not diminishing the original one. The problem with this method has been that plucking generally yields a hair with insufficient cells to induce a new follicle to form.
In one form of hair multiplication, hairs are plucked from the scalp or beard and then implanted into the bald part of the scalp. The idea is that some germinative cells at the base of the hair follicle will be pulled out along with the hair. Once the hair is re-implanted, these cells would be able to regenerate a new follicle. Microscopic examination of the plucked hair helps the doctor determine which hairs have the most stem cells attached and thus which are most likely to regrow. The procedure is called “hair multiplication” since the plucked follicles would regrow a new hair, potentially giving an unlimited supply.
The problem with this technique has been that the cells that are adherent to the hair shaft when it is plucked do not seem to play a major role in follicular growth, and the stem cells around the bulge region of the follicle, the ones most important for hair growth, are not harvested to any significant degree. Recently, it has been speculated that the addition of an extra-cellular matrix (ECM) to stimulate growth would make these plucked hairs more likely to survive after implantation and then grow into a fully developed hair. This, however, has been hard to document in clinical trials. (See ACell Extracellular Matrix)
A limitation of the newer method, using ECM, is that plucked hairs often do not contain enough germinative material to stimulate the growth of new hair, so only a small number of the hairs that are actually plucked are useful to transplant.
Another concern with this technique is that part of the new hair is derived from the skin in the recipient site, rather than being only from the transplanted hair follicle. At this point, we are hopeful that this newly formed hair (which has cells from both the donor and recipient areas) will be resistant to the miniaturizing actions of DHT and not disappear over time.
The Model for Hair Cloning
When it comes to cloning, hair follicles present a significant challenge. Hair follicles are too complex to be simply multiplied in a test-tube and are not whole organisms (like Dolly the Sheep, see below) so they cannot grow on their own. Fortunately, a pair of clever scientists, Drs. Amanda Reynolds and Colin Jahoda (now working with Dr. Christiano at Columbia University), seem to have made great headway in solving the dilemma.
In their paper Trans-Gender Induction of Hair Follicles, the researchers have shown that dermal sheath cells, found in the lower part of the human follicle, can be isolated from one person and then injected into the skin of another to promote the formation of new intact hair. The implanted cells interacted locally to stimulate the creation of full terminal (i.e. normal) hair follicles. Although this is not actually cloning (see the definition above), the dermal sheath cells can potentially be multiplied in a Petri dish and then injected in great numbers to produce a full head of hair. The word “potentially” is highlighted, as this multiplication has not yet been accomplished. It seems, however, that this hair “induction” process is the model most likely to work.
Another interesting aspect of their experiment is that the donor cells came from a male but the recipient, who actually grew the hair, was a female. The importance of this is that donor cells can be transferred from one person to another without being rejected. Since repeat implantations did not provoke the typical rejection responses, even though the donor was of the opposite sex and had a significantly different genetic profile, this indicates that the dermal sheath cells have a special immune status and that the lower hair follicle is one of the bodies “immune privileged” sites.
In addition, there is some evidence that the recipient skin can influence the look of the hair. Thus, the final appearance of the patient may more closely resemble the bald person’s original hair, than the hair of the person donating the inducer cells. The person-to-person transfer of cells would be important in situations where there was a total absence of hair. Fortunately, in androgenetic alopecia (genetic hair loss) there is a supply of hair on the back and sides of the scalp that would serve as the source of dermal sheath cells, so the transfer between people would rarely be necessary.
Probably the most important aspect of this experiment is the fact that these “inducer” dermal sheath cells are fibroblasts. Fibroblasts, as it turns out, are among the easiest of all cells to culture, so that the donor area could potentially serve as an unlimited supply of hair.
What Still Needs to be Done
There are a number of problems that still confront us in cloning hair. First, there is the need to determine the most appropriate follicular components to use (dermal sheath cells, the ones used in the Collin/Jahoda experiment, are hard to isolate and may not actually produce the best hair). Next, these extracted cells must be successfully cultured outside the body. Third, a cell matrix might be needed to keep them properly aligned while they are growing. Finally, the cells must be successfully injected into the recipient scalp in a way that they will consistently induce hair to grow.
Unlike Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT), in which intact follicular units are planted into the scalp in the exact direction the surgeon wants the hair to grow, with cell implantation there is no guarantee that the induced hair will grow in the right direction or have the color, hair thickness or texture to look natural. To circumvent this problem, one might use the induced hair in the central part of the scalp for volume and then use traditional FUT for refinement and to create a natural appearance.
However, it is not even certain that the induced follicles will actually grow long enough to produce cosmetically significant hair. And once that hair is shed in the normal hair cycle, there are no assurances that it will grow and cycle again. (Normal hair grows in cycles that last 2-6 years. The hair is then shed and the follicle lies dormant for about three months before it produces a new hair and starts the cycle over again.)
A major technical problem to cloning hair is that cells in culture begin to de-differentiate as they multiply and revert to acting like fibroblasts again, rather than hair. Finding the proper environment in which the cells can grow, so that they will be maintained in a differentiated (hair-like) state, is a major challenge to the researchers and appears to be the single greatest obstacle to this form of therapy coming to fruition. This is not unlike the problems in cloning entire organisms where the environment that the embryonic cells grow in is the key to their proper differentiation and survival.
Models for Cloning Hair
There are four main experimental techniques that have been recently described by Teumer. These are: 1) Implanting Dermal Papillae cells alone, 2) Placing DP cells alongside miniaturized follicles, 3) Implanting DP cells with keratinocytes (“Proto-hairs”), and 4) Cell Implantation using a Matrix.
See our Hair Cloning Methods page for descriptions and charts about current methods of study regarding hair cloning.
Finally, although remote, there may be safety concerns that cells that induce hair may also induce tumors, or exhibit malignant growth themselves. Once these obstacles have been overcome, there are still the requirements of FDA approval which further guarantees safety as well as effectiveness. This process involves three formalized stages of clinical testing and generally takes years.
On the status of cloning — it is still a work in progress. Although there has been much recent success, and we finally have a working model for how hair cloning might eventually be accomplished, much work still needs to be done.
Overview of Cloning
Cloning is the production of genetically identical organisms. The first clone of an adult animal was Dolly, the famous Edinburgh sheep. Although technically not an exact replica of her mother (and therefore not a true clone), the revolutionary part of the experiment was that it overturned the long-held view that non-sex cells of an adult (somatic cells) were differentiated to such a degree that they lost any potential to develop into a new adult organism. Scientists had believed that once a cell became specialized as a lung, liver, or any other type of adult cell, the change was irreversible as other genes in the cell became permanently inactive. The other major challenge was to be able to initiate the multiplication of the genetically altered cell and then to provide the proper environment in which the growth of the new organism could take place.
With Dolly, scientists transferred genetic material from the nucleus of a donor adult sheep cell to an egg whose nucleus, and thus its genetic material, had been removed. This egg, containing the DNA from a donor cell, had to be treated with chemicals or an electric current in order to stimulate cell division. Once the cloned embryo reached a suitable stage, it was transferred to a very hospitable environment -– the uterus of another sheep -– where it continued to develop until birth.
Cloning vs. Genetic Engineering
In contrast to replicating whole organisms, in genetic engineering, one alters the DNA of a particular cell so that it can manufacture proteins to correct genetic defects or produce other beneficial changes in an organism. The initial step in genetic engineering is to isolate the gene that is responsible for the problem. The next step is to clone (multiply) the gene. The last step is to insert the gene inside the cell so that it can work to alter bodily function.
The first gene causing hair loss in humans was discovered by Dr. Angela Christiano at Columbia University. Individuals with this gene are born with hair that soon falls out (as infant hair often does) but then never grows back. They mapped the disease to chromosome 8p21 in humans and they actually cloned a related hair loss gene in mice. Although a huge step forward, this gene is not the same as the one(s) that cause common baldness. Luckily, Dr. Christiano’s lab continues its work to isolate the genetic material responsible for androgenetic alopecia. We will keep you posted on their progress.
A new drug that is an activator of the “Hedgehog pathway” has been shown to stimulate hair growth in adult mice. The study showed that a topically applied medication can initiate the Hedgehog signaling pathway to stimulate hair follicles to pass from the resting to the growth stage of the hair cycle in mice. This technology has not yet been applied to humans. (See Hedgehog Signaling Pathway Could Yield Hair Growth, Hair Loss Treatment in the Hair Cloning News section)