BRITISH scientists have made a breakthrough that could hold the key to curing baldness.
They have found a way of cloning the tiny cells that contain the body’s instructions for growing new hair.
When these laboratory-grown cells are put back into human skin, they trigger hair growth.
Although research is at an early stage, the scientists from Durham University, working with colleagues from Columbia University in the US, say it represents a real breakthrough in reversing the hair loss that blights millions of men and women.
It could eventually transform the treatment of baldness, which is at the moment limited to drug therapy or hair transplants.
Drugs can have side-effects and hair transplants simply redistribute existing hair.
By contrast, the breakthrough cloning technique boosts the number of hairs on a patient’s head. The scientists took a strip of human scalp and extract tiny cells called dermal papillae, found in clumps at the base of a hair.
They cloned these cells in a lab dish to produce multiple copies.
The clumps were then transplanted into a piece of human skin that had been grafted on to the backs of mice.
Previous attempts to get cloned cells to sprout hair had failed.
But this time cells from all seven human donors triggered hair growth and, in two or three cases, the tufts broke through the skin, according to the team’s report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The new hairs were white but Durham researcher Colin Jahoda says it should possible to produce coloured hair in future.
Starting with a sample of a person’s own cells should also mean that any new hair is a good match in terms of texture and curliness. Professor Jahoda said: ‘There are a lot of technical hurdles to cross before using it as a cosmetic treatment but this is a very important step forward.’
It is hoped that the first human trials will start soon and that men and women will both eventually receive the treatment. Although baldness is usually thought of as a male problem, some eight million British women are losing their hair.
Burns victims could also benefit, as grafted skin could be made to grow hair.
It is too early to say how much the new method would cost but it could be cheaper than hair transplants, which average Pound6,000 to Pound10,000 but can cost Pound30,000.
However, Dr David Fenton of the British Association of Dermatologists warned that any use as a routine treatment is years away.
‘It is something for researchers to be excited about but not something that consumers should hold their breath for,’ he said.