Researchers have long pursued the discovery of stem cell that could quickly and easily reverse the signs of hair loss. Such a cell would function as a proverbial “on/off switch,” giving hair loss physicians the ability to induce new hair growth across areas of bald skin. Men and women who suffer with androgenetic alopecia (pattern baldness) would not be the only benefactors; individuals who suffer hair loss following severe injuries, burns, or illnesses could also benefit from a quick and easy hair loss treatment protocol directed through a specific stem cell.
This December, a discovery at the University of Calgary indicates that researchers might be closer to this dream. Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, a Veterinary Medicine professor, published research findings in the December 2014 issue of the Developmental Cell journal that identify certain self-renewing cells located in the dermal sheath that play an integral role in managing hair growth. One day, hair loss professionals may be able to target these cells with specially formulated drugs to induce new hair growth in a precise and controlled fashion. Says Dr. Biernaskie, “We hope that we can ultimately stimulate these cells with drugs to replenish or rejuvenate the cells that are responsible for inducing hair growth,” (i). To understand how these self-renewing cells might someday cure hair loss, it’s helpful to first understand the role dermal papilla plays in overseeing normal hair growth.
The dermal papilla is a cluster of cells located at the base of the hair follicle. Dermatologists have long understood that this cluster of cells stimulates new hair growth via epidermal cells and the hair follicle. Exactly how the dermal papilla oversees this process, however, has largely remained a mystery until recently. Moreover, research indicates that dysfunctional dermal papilla are common among individuals with pattern baldness.
“When you lose your hair, particularly in male pattern baldness, we know the reason you go bald is because of dysfunction of[…] dermal papilla,” explains Dr. Biernaskie.
But what if certain neighboring cells could be used to resuscitate dormant dermal papilla? This question became the inspiration for the central hypothesis tested by Dr. Biernaskie and his research team. To identify these potential cells, the team used genetic markers to label individual cells within the dermal sheath. While monitoring the cells, the team made an exciting discovery: A small number of cells within the dermal sheath exhibited the ability to self-renew, creating new cells in each hair follicle. Those new cells included new dermal papilla, which ultimately have the power to facilitate new hair growth.
Commenting on the discovery, Dr. Biernaskie says, “We know that there is a small group of dermal stem cells in each follicle, we know where they reside[…] down the road, we might be able to look at different drugs that activate these cells[…] in order to stimulate new hair growth.”