For those hoping for a new technology that will carpet a bald scalp like Astroturf, the best shot may come from a small group of companies that are trying to cultivate new follicles like seedlings. Experiments are challenging the long-held notion that new follicles are never formed in humans and that follicles can never be revived once they become inactive.
A pilot study in humans is planned within a few months using a strategy outlined in May by Dr. George Cotsarelis, a University of Pennsylvania dermatology professor who discovered that mice healing from wounds could produce hair follicles. Cotsarelis theorized that the healing process created a window of time when new skin structures could form.
The Boston company he co-founded, Follica Inc., is trying to duplicate the regenerative environment of wound healing in humans by using a modified form of microdermabrasion, a form of skin treatment that grinds off dead surface skin cells and encourages repair by deeper cells.
Along with that mild injury to the scalp, Follica applies drugs to promote the growth of new follicles.
If new follicles form on top of a bald scalp, will they have the decadeslong lifespan of a baby’s follicles, or will they quickly succumb to the male hormones that caused the baldness in the first place? That’s a question raised by Chris Ehrlich, a partner in the Menlo Park VC firm InterWest Partners, which has helped fund Follica.
“We view it as a very early, very high-risk project,” Ehrlich said. “But if it works, it would be great.”
In another approach, company scientists at Atlanta’s Aderans Research Institute are taking certain key cells from the scalp and trying to multiply their numbers by growing them in culture. Two cell types were chosen because they exchange chemical signals that foster follicle formation. If the method works, the propagated cells could be injected into the scalp as “hair seeds” to create new follicles.