Several research teams are working with stem cells to figure out ways to spur existing follicles—the tiny organs in the skin that give birth to hair—back into action, or to make new, active follicles.
Crucial to the hair-growth and balding process, scientists have found, are vitamin D and the microscopic receptors that bind to it in skin. These elements have become the focus for several research teams. (Supplements might offer health benefits for people lacking enough vitamin D, but they won't bring back lost hair, researchers say.)
Some researchers, including those from the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, have identified molecules besides vitamin D that appear to activate the receptor and hold potential for future treatments. In July, Japanese researchers demonstrated in animals that adding vitamin D helped the process of using stem cells to generate new follicles.
Vitamin D has long been known to be important for keeping bones and skin healthy. But research on its role in bone development has progressed much faster than has the research on skin and hair.
Amount spent yearly world-wide on
for hair loss.
(Source: the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery)
Number of men affected by male-pattern baldness or androgenetic alopecia in the U.S.
Chemotherapy-induced hair loss in cancer patients is also common, and in some cases, the follicles may die. Several other factors such as childbirth, crash diets and some medications can also lead to hair loss, though the exact reasons why follicles are lulled to sleep isn't well understood.
In rats, the scientists found more stem cells were coaxed into becoming follicles when vitamin D was used in the final phase of growing the cells than those not treated, says Kotaro Yoshimura, a professor in the department of plastic surgery who was the senior author on the paper. In addition, more of those follicles matured to produce hair, raising the hope that this might lead to improved hair transplants in the future. The study appeared in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.
Currently, hair transplants can only get single hair from one follicle "but we want to make 1,000 hairs from one follicle," one after the next, says Dr. Yoshimura. They are now teaming up with two other sets of researchers and planning a clinical trial.