Stem cell technology put to work in search for hair treatments

Acure for baldness doesn't leap to mind when one ponders the next advance in stem cell research, but whoever manages to do it stands to become very rich.

Scientists around the world have already grown liver and brain cells in the laboratory using cell samples from humans. Others - including some working for a Vancouver-based company - are hard at work trying to find a way to nurture new hair growth on shiny heads.

"It's a market where people spend a ton of money," says David Hall, CEO of RepliCel Life Sciences Inc., a biotech firm with offices in downtown Vancouver that has attracted the attention of Japan's Shiseido Co.

The cosmetic giant paid $4.2 million in July to share Repli-Cel's research on a highly speculative technology for treating hair loss.

Hall, who says his own flowing locks have no high-tech enhancement, acknowledges that plenty of people think hair-cloning research is frivolous. But those usually aren't people who are losing their hair, particularly at a young age.

"It's just not perceived as a medical need, but I think there are a lot of people who would say it's important to them," Hall says. "There's definitely a mental health aspect for young men and for women in their 30s and 40s. It can be very devastating to their self-esteem."

Hair transplants are still the "gold standard" for hair restoration, he says, but their success relies on the skill of the surgeon and a supply of healthy follicles from elsewhere on the scalp.

The RepliCel technique was pioneered by company cofounders Dr. Rolf Hoffmann, a German dermatologist, and Vancouver researcher Kevin McElwee. Hair follicles are harvested from the back of a person's scalp, where hair is typically resistant to the hormone that causes baldness. That tissue is transferred to the lab, where researchers isolate dermal sheath cup cells from the base of the follicle. Those cells are replicated by the millions over a period of three months, later to be injected into bald areas at the top of the scalp using a specially designed device.

"What initially attracted me to this concept is it's not a drug," says Hall. "The treatment uses the patient's own cells to replace hormone-compromised hair follicle cells in the bald areas. The concept of treating cellular deficits with your own cells is elegant. It's the same concept we're using in our other treatment in development for chronic tendinosis."

The company hopes to have a clinical trial with 120 men test the procedure in Germany in coming months as it works its way through regulatory requirements that could ultimately lead to licensing in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. It has already completed an initial trial of 19 subjects that found no serious adverse reactions six months after injections.

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Stem cell technology put to work in search for hair treatments

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