SAN FRANCISCO — In its short history, biotechnology has targeted a wide range of ailments including cancer, Alzheimer's disease and even world hunger.
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Now it's taking on baldness, one of man's greatest vanities.
In a hair-raising experiment, scientists reported Sunday they had successfully induced bald mice to grow new locks after being implanted with stem cells.
In a paper to be published in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology, the researchers teased out what scientists had suspected for years: hair contains supplies of immature "blank slate" stem cells that help keep most humans under a full head of hair for life.
Though called stem cells, they differ from embryonic stem cells, which are created in the first days after conception and give rise to the entire human body and its more than 200 different cells. Some political conservatives oppose embryonic stem cell research because embryos are destroyed in during the research.
The hair stem cells the researchers isolated are considered "adult" and don't involve embryos. Instead, these stem cells can turn into only a few different mature cells related to hair.
Cells have ability to generate hair
Nonetheless, the research could ultimately yield a baldness treatment, researchers said.
"We've shown for the first time these cells have the ability to generate hair when taken from one animal and put into another," said Dr. George Cotsarelis, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist and co-author of the study. "You can envision a process of isolating existing stem cells and re-implanting them in the areas where guys are bald."
The researchers also identified 150 genes implicated in hair growth, information that could also be used in to create drugs to slow, or even reverse, baldness.
Each strand of hair on the head grows for about 8 years before dying and falling out. About 10 percent of hair is dead at any one time, but gets continually replaced, Cotsarelis said.
Though bald people's heads are covered with microscopic strands, their hair doesn't fully get replaced. Cotsarelis and others believe that bald individuals don't have as many hair stem cells as most others.
The researchers said they found the stem cells in hair follicles, which are located under the skin. The stem cells lay dormant in each follicle until called upon to build another hair. The stem cells can also turn into oil glands and certain skin cells, Cotsarelis said.
"I think once we know more about these cells we'll also have a lot more understanding of skin cancers," Cotsarelis said.
Treatment for baldness still years away
Biologists who study hair because of its regenerative qualities said the new study is an important breakthrough, but cautioned a baldness cure is still some years away.
"Like with any stem cells, the amount of information needed to get us from a stem to a fully developed organ is a lot," said Stanford University biologist Anthony Oro. "It will require a lot of things to go right and we are still along way off."
If a hair replacement is ever produced from the work, it would represent the first such treatment specifically developed for baldness. Two drugs now on the markets, known commercially as Rogaine and Propecia, were first designed to treat hypertension and enlarged prostates. Both drugs were serendipitously discovered to have hair growth as a side effect. Each drug has about $100 million in sales annually.
It's estimated that more than $1 billion is spent each year in the United States combatting baldness, mostly through hair transplants.
The biotechnology entry into baldness is only the latest of a long series of attempts to beat back baldness.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, thought baldness could be cured by rubbing a mixture of pigeon excrement, horseradish and beet root onto the scalp _ or, alternatively, sheep urine. The ancient Egyptians used the fat of hippos, crocodiles and goats along with dog toes and donkey hooves.
Caesar, concerned that a bald head projected an image of frailty, combed his remaining strands forward before resorting to laurel leaves to hide his pate.
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