Giant strides to prevent and cure baldness are being made in medical labs around the world. The latest announcement comes from Japan’s largest research organization RIKEN, which has teamed up with two Japanese companies, Kyocera and Organ Technologies, to develop a cure based on regenerative medicine. The companies are targeting 2020 for commercialization.
They are not the only ones going down the regeneration route. Earlier this year, scientists at Sanford-Burham Medical Research Institute in California, for instance, made a similar announcement citing similar methods. Meanwhile, Japan cosmetic maker Shiseido has been working with RepliCel Life and Sciences in Canada to develop their own regenerative process and aims to introduce a treatment as early as 2018 for a fee of 100,00 yen ($1,000).
In Japan some 18 million people suffer from hair loss, while in the United States, it is more than three times that number—men outnumbering females by more than two to one. So depending on the cost and effectiveness of the new treatment, there should be no lack of patients.
The researchers at RIKEN, led by Takashi Tsuji, have already demonstrated they can regenerate body parts including teeth, certain glands and hair follicles in mice in a process known as the primordium method. The magic ingredient employed is stem cells: the remarkable cells that have the ability to change themselves into the different cells composing our various bodily organs.
Hair follicles are the sheaths of cells and tissues that surround the roots of our hair, providing it with nourishment. With the exception of our skin, hair follicles are the only organ we know of that regenerates themselves repeatedly after birth thanks to the work of the stem cells associated with them. Hair will continue to grow out of a follicle for between 3 to 7 years. The follicle then goes into hibernation and sheds the hair. After several months it awakens, and the cycle begins again.
Hormones can impact the cycle, as can the immune system and aging. Until now, if a follicle suffered damage, that was it: no new follicles are produced after birth.
Follicular regenerative medicine, as the new hair restorative method, is called, works by removing a small patch of skin and hair follicles from the patient’s scalp. The stem cells active in the follicles are isolated and extracted and then cultivated to increase their number by many orders of magnitude. These cells are subsequently processed and turned into follicles using Tsuji’s primordium method and then injected or autografted onto the patient’s scalp.
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