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Baldness Breakthrough?

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Few men say they like going bald.

Or women for that matter.

"It's really a big self image thing."

But that may be about to change. Dr. Angela Christiano and colleagues at Columbia University Medical Center have for the first time been able to grow new human hair follicles from a handful of cells in the lab.

"This approach could actually be used to make brand new hairs."

But growing human hairs turns out to be pretty hard. Taking some donor hair follicles is easy - and separating out the stem cells that will make new follicles isn't that hard either. But then things go south.

"They begin to lose their memory that they came from a hair follicle, and so part of our job has been to try to restore that memory by growing them under different culture conditions."

The Columbia researchers figured out that the follicle cells needs to be in 3-dimensional contact with each other. So after cutting off the cells from the bottom of the follicle papilla, they grew the cells in hanging drops so they would clump together at the bottom of the drop. That reactivates their genetic memory.

"Their hair follicle memory takes over and they begin to actually secrete factors that are much more like how they were intact in the hair follicle."

The final step was transplanting the lab-grown follicle cells into hairless human skin - and within a few weeks...."about 5 out of our 7 donors we were able to get hairs that were induced and even growing new hair shafts."

The technique could be especially useful for people who don't have enough donor hairs for a transplant - a common problem for balding women.

Another use would be for burn victims who can't grow hair on their scarred skin. So far, this has just been done on human skin transplanted onto mice, so clinical trials are at least 5 years away.

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