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Feeling a bit thin on top? This cloning story may restore your crowning glory

Last hairs can be duplicated many times over

Millions of men and women who suffer from premature baldness or hair loss could soon be able to regain their original lustrous locks – by cloning their remaining hair in the laboratory, research suggests.

The new technique, known as “follicular cell implantation”, has already shown positive results in continuing clinical trials on human beings. The work, being carried out by a British team, is being hailed as a major advance in hair restoration and is backed by a £1.9 million government grant.

The cell therapy has the potential to provide a limitless supply of an individual’s hair to replace that lost because of burns, cancer treatment or simply the onset of age, and could be available to patients within five years.

The latest results of the Phase II trial, presented at a conference of leading hair replacement surgeons in Rome, suggest that the technique can increase hair count in at least two thirds of patients after six months, and four out of five if the scalp is stimulated beforehand through gentle abrasions that encourage hair growth.

The new technique involves extracting dermal papilla (DP) cells, the basic cells responsible for hair growth, from a sample of only about 100 hairs from the back of the scalp – the area where hair usually continues to grow despite losses in other areas. These cells are then multiplied many times over in a special patented culture before being injected back into the scalp in their millions, stimulating the formation of new hair follicles or rejuvenating those that have stopped producing hair on the top of the head.

The procedure is being developed by Intercytex, a British company based in Manchester, which is among many competing to find a cure for hair loss that affects 40 per cent of men over 50. It may require more than 1,000 tiny injections to produce that number of hairs in extensively bald patients but it will be quicker and less invasive than current hair transplant techniques favoured by celebrities including Sir Elton John and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister.

Experts believe that the continual refinements in modern-day hair transplants and proven medical therapies are creating increased demand for hair restoration surgery around the world. About 3,000 such procedures – costing between £2,500 and £7,000 – take place at private clinics in Britain every year. Current hair transplants involve large clumps of follicles being cut from the back of the head under local anaesthetic and separated into individual strands before being transplanted on top of the pate in their thousands. Surgeons are limited by the extent of hair needed to create a graft and the scar that it leaves behind.

Bessam Farjo, a hair-loss specialist and president of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, who is leading the research, said that results after six months were now available for 11 patients out of 19 currently enrolled on the trial. Of these, four out of five whose scalp had been stimulated had an increased hair count, noticeable from photographs, while three out of six without stimulation of the scalp had also noticed benefits. Full data was not available for two of the remaining patients, he added.

“We can take a small sample from the back of the head, extract the dermal papilla [DP] cells and then use a patented method of multiplying these basic cells of extracted hairs in the lab,” he said. “Within eight weeks they are capable of generating literally millions of themselves, meaning that only around 100 hairs are needed in order to produce thousands of new hairs.”

Researchers from the US, Italy and Japan are also exploring the possibility of cloning hair, including techniques designed to extract stem cells from the base of the hair follicles.

But Dr Farjo, who runs the Farjo Hair Institutes in London and Manchester, said he was confident that the Intercytex approach was the most advanced and regulated clinical trial for hair loss anywhere in the world. The full results of the 48-week study will be available next year.

“For many men and women the consequences of hair loss can be devastating – whether brought on by pattern baldness or as a result of cancer treatment such as radiotherapy,” he said. “There are some effective nonsurgical treatments that can slow down the process but these involve taking daily pills. For those with more significant hair loss one to two operations per bald area can give a natural looking head of hair of reasonable density.”

Dr Farjo said that his team was also experimenting with combining the DP cells with keratinocytes – the cells that produce keratin, the basic building material of hair – so that they could grow actual hairs for transplant, rather than injectable cells. This could further improve surgeons’ control over the amount, direction and appearance of the transplanted hair, he said.

“Hair surgeons and their patients have been waiting for something like this since the 1980s, but in my view it may be as little as five years before patients start seeing the benefits.”

Connor Kiely, a hair restoration surgeon based in Ireland, said: “The possibilties thrown up by this research are very exciting, and we have been waiting for a long time for a solution like this that will deal with the problem at source, rather than simply relocating hair from one place to another.”

Andrew Messenger, a consultant dermatologist at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, sounded a sceptical note. “If they really have done this then that is quite an achievement, but I would like to see all the data.

“It does work with other species, but these are other species who grow hair at the drop of a hat. It’s quite a bit more difficult with humans.”

Marilyn Sherlock, chairman of the Institute of Trichologists, and a practising specialist in hair loss in Salisbury, Wiltshire, said: “If it works as well as the preliminary findings suggest, this is going to be absolutely superb. Baldness is sometimes only noticed once a lot of hair loss has already occurred and a lot of men who do not have a lot left at the back of their heads cannot opt for current transplants, while the cost is also prohibitive.

“We don’t yet know what the cost of these injections would be, but if they were made available they could also be a useful treatment for women whose hair typically becomes extremely thin all over the head. This could allow a lot more people to opt for hair restoration who currently might previously not have considered having anything done.”

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