In an effort to help the more than 80 million Americans experiencing hair loss, researchers are investigating a process known as hair follicle cloning, or multiplication. In theory, this procedure would require taking a person's hair follicle cells, multiplying them in a laboratory, and then injecting them back into the patient's scalp. 

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For now, the procedure is only being conducted in animal research, said Kurt Stenn, MD, chief scientific officer at Aderans Research Institute in Philadelphia. "Several labs around the world are working on it. There are claims that it's being done in humans, but there are no published data supporting this."

Overall, animal studies indicate that the prospects of hair multiplication are very promising, he said.

The Biology of Hair Loss

Image result for Hair Cloning Understanding hair follicle multiplication requires a basic knowledge of hair biology. The follicle is the living part of the hair and is located in the skin. The shaft is the part of the hair that is visible. The growth of hair occurs at the base of the follicle, where cells divide rapidly, creating keratin, a protein that makes up the hair shaft.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, hair loss is caused by age, hormones and genes passed on from either the maternal or paternal side, or both. Hereditary hair loss is marked by miniaturized hair follicles and a shortened hair growth cycle. 


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The Hair Follicle Cloning/Multiplication Process

The hair follicle cloning, or multiplication, process is not yet possible, but is an idea based on scientific theory. Cells from the hair follicle that are able to induce the growth of another hair would be replicated in the laboratory and then injected into the scalp to create new hair. This procedure would make it possible to generate multiple, virtually unlimited numbers, of hair follicles, which is why the procedure is also called hair multiplication.

Hair follicle cloning is actually a misleading term, explained Jerry Cooley, MD, of the Hair Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Cloning involves making an identical genetic copy of a living organism—such as Dolly the lamb—or a cell or gene.

Hair follicle cloning is really cell therapy or tissue engineering, a process that would involve taking some tissue from the scalp—using a circular punch about 2 millimeters in diameter—that contains hair follicle cells, and then finding a way to let these cells multiply in the laboratory using cell culture, Dr. Cooley said.

"In culture, cells divide, so one cell becomes two, two become four and so on, resulting in large numbers of new cells," he said. In humans, researchers would let these cells get to a viable point in their development and then inject them in the patient's scalp using a syringe.

From an original sample of around 10 hairs containing 100,000 hair follicle cells, several million offspring cells could be injected, resulting in several thousand new hairs, Dr. Cooley said. This is the theoretical benefit of cell therapy, which must be proven with further research.
Researchers anticipate that the harvesting of the donor hairs in the surgeon's office will take only minutes, Dr. Stenn said. Preparation of the follicles will take a couple of weeks.

Dr. Cooley agree that there would be a few weeks between the taking of the scalp sample and the time of injection of follicle cells. "The hope would be that a single treatment would completely cover an area of hair loss," he said. "Further hair loss may require more treatments."

What Challenges Exist?

Researchers have encountered several basic limitations or obstacles in the follicular multiplication process, Dr. Stein said. The first is trying to get the complex and delicate hair follicle cells to reproduce and create hairs, rather than generate one or two cells that fail to develop into hair.

Second, the procedure has cosmetic limitations. Getting the hairs to grow in the skin in the right place and achieve adequate thickness, color and direction of growth could be difficult. Researchers don't know how many hairs will grow out of the cells that they inject and they don't know what the quality will be. No research data exist yet proving that the quality of hair generated from this process would be as good as the patient's original hair, Dr. Cooley said.

Determining how many offspring cells can be produced to maximize the regenerative potential of the original hairs is also difficult, said Dr. Cooley. No one knows how many generations of new cells can be produced before they lose their ability to regenerate hair.

Safety is another concern. Before hair follicle cloning can move forward, scientists have to ensure that the implantation of reproduced collections of cells can be done without the risk of cancerous tumors developing, Dr. Cooley explained. Thus far, cell therapy is being researched in many other medical conditions without an increase in cancer risk, so the likelihood is low.

Because the cells being injected are replicated from cells that come from same patient, safety concerns should be minimized, Dr. Stenn said.

Legal And Ethical Issues

The legal controversy that surrounds human cloning will most likely not apply to hair multiplication because the procedure is not true cloning, experts noted. Additionally, the culturing of hair follicle cells and injection of these cells involves just one individual and will not impact another living organism.

Even though legal debate may not surround hair multiplication, controversy over whether the procedure is necessary does exist. Experts say that some people find hair restoration to be a frivolous procedure. However, the procedure can be used to help children who experience hair loss. Finding a way to restore their hair can help them overcome social barriers, Dr. Stenn said.

Additionally, learning how to generate new hair follicle structures is going to give researchers insight into generating more important medical procedures involving eye and lung tissue, he said.

Costs

Researchers aren't yet sure about the cost involved with hair multiplication. "It's not going to be a cheap procedure at the beginning," Dr. Stenn said. "But it may become more efficient and affordable over time."

The process will be expensive when it is initially introduced, Dr. Cooley agreed. It will probably be five times as expensive as a hair transplant, though the benefits will also be greater. With a traditional hair transplant, the patient may receive 4,000 to 5,000 hairs. With hair multiplication, the patient will most likely be receiving follicle cells that will generate many more, perhaps as many as 50,000.

When Will The Technology Be Available?

Experts agree that further research will help scientists answer the many questions still surrounding hair multiplication. "My prediction is that over the next five years, the research will become sound," Dr. Cooley said. "Five years after that, hair multiplication might be available to the public."