Can Stem Cells Cure Baldness?

By Jocelyn Selim|Friday, December 03, 2004

Courtesy of Rockefeller University


The patch of hair on this bald mouse’s back is the result of a single transplanted stem cell. The method may one day be used to grow hair on humans.

Patrick Stewart and James Gandolfini, take note. Biochemists led by Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University have isolated stem cells that may someday grow new hair on a bald head. This is more than a vanity project for the Rogaine set: The work could also lead to custom-grown skin grafts and a better understanding of how the body regenerates itself.

The skin’s ability to grow back after a wound led scientists to assume that it must contain stem cells, immature  cells that can rapidly differentiate into many different types of tissue. Until now, however, nobody knew where such cells were located in the skin or how many kinds there might be.

Using fluorescent markers, Fuchs and her colleagues isolated two distinct populations of stem cells from mouse skin. The researchers then extracted the cells and grafted them onto genetically engineered hairless mice. Both cell populations caused the mice to develop thick patches of fur, along with all the other components of skin, including sweat and sebaceous glands.

These stem cells are different from the controversial ones extracted from embryos. “Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the ability to become any type of tissue,” Fuchs says. “We know these stem cells are multipotent—they can become any epidermis-derived tissue—but beyond that, we don’t know.”

Fuchs is now working on isolating equivalent cells in humans. “To really treat baldness, you’d have to understand all the chemical pathways cells use to tell each other when to grow,” she says. “That could take a while.”    

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