From the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Japan comes the exciting news that they have grown skin with functional hair follicles. We take a closer look.
Science almost always advances in small steps, standing on the shoulders of giants so to speak. The team of researchers at the Riken Centre for Development Biology in Japan are involved in just such a creeping advance - The ultimate ambition is to eventually grow replacement human organs for transplantation. In the same way that the knowledge required to produce a lens eventually led to space telescopes, a process that took hundreds if not thousands of discoveries and insights,
One of the first accomplishments in their field was to grow human skin in the laboratory. While this was achieved some time ago the replicated cells did not function in every respect like the real stuff... it did not create hair follicles for one thing. There were other, equally important to the scientists, areas where the replicated skin failed to perform though. Exocrine glands are vital in allowing the skin to regulate and these essential cellular organs were also absent.
Bearing in mind the long term goal, of growing replacement organs, it is encouraging for hair loss sufferers that fixing the problem of skin replication is an early necessary step on the road. Dr Takashi Tsuji, who led the Japanese team, described the lack of hair on artifical skin as a "critical issue". That is not the same thing as it being fixed anytime soon of course,
We are not going to attempt to explain the detail of a genuinely 21st Century piece of research here but happy to offer an idiots guide. First the team needed to create a clump of cells that resemble a developing embryo, for which they use a specific stem cell called iPS. The researchers created embryoid bodies (EBs), a 3D clump of cells that partially resembles the developing embryo in an actual body, from a type of stem cell called iPS cells. These cells were then implanted into immune-deficient mice and allowed to develop, like real embryonic cells, into differentiated tissue. This tissue was then transplanted into other mice where it continued to develop normally - this included skin cells which for the first time produced functioning follicles and exocrine cells.
Then they implanted multiple EBs into immune-deficient mice, where they gradually changed into differentiated tissue, following the pattern of an actual embryo.
Once the tissue had differentiated, the scientists transplanted them out of those mice and into the skin tissue of other mice, where the tissues developed normally.
As with so many of these hair loss cure stories involving ultra-modern techniques, there is still some way to go before this treatment is likely to attempted on a hairless human. Nevertheless. as Dr Tsuji puts it: 'With this new technique, we have successfully grown skin that replicates the function of normal tissue. We are coming ever closer to the dream of being able to recreate actual organs in the lab for transplantation, and also believe that tissue grown through this method could be used as an alternative to animal testing of chemicals.'
So there you have the immediate plans for the treatment. No doubt however, that when we can finally look back at hair loss as an addressable situation this is just the type of research that will have taken us there.