In what is currently a standard hair transplant, follicles are transplanted from one part of the patient's scalp where hair is present, to another where hair is sparse. In other words, more hair is not being created, but just spread around. The amount of coverage that can be obtained depends on how many active hair follicles still remain.
If the cell-transplant approach were to develop into a viable technique, it would actually create new hair follicles and have distinct advantages over current methods. "There's no limitation to the number of new hair follicles," says Peter B. Cserhalmi-Friedman, M.D., one of the study's authors and an associate research scientist in the department of dermatology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at New York City's Columbia University. "Because you don't have to remove a follicle from someplace else, it can probably be used not only on people with good hair on one part of their scalp but also on people without any hair."
But don't start looking for an ideal donor yet. Any new techniques in this area would probably not be available for at least another decade, says Sadick.
Fortunately for those who still have hair on their heads, there's something you can do in the here and now. But time is of the essence, says Sadick, since the two FDA-approved drugs for hair growth work better when the hair follicles are not yet dead, when they still have some activity and can be saved.
Finasteride, sold under the brand name Propecia, is taken as a daily pill. A September 1999 New England Journal of Medicine article that reviewed the literature on hair loss found that after two years of treatment, two-thirds of the men taking this medication had improved scalp coverage, with higher hair counts and longer, thicker hair. A very small number of men experienced a decreased libido with the drug, but these side effects usually disappeared during prolonged treatment.
For those who don't want to take a pill, minoxidil (sold under the brand name Rogaine) is a treatment that must be applied twice daily to the scalp indefinitely. However, it works for fewer men than finasteride does, says Sadick. The main side effect is skin irritation.
Since few insurance plans cover either drug -- or the surgery, for that matter -- and you need to take them without interruption to get the benefits and maintain them, hair-transplant surgery is probably more cost-effective, says Sadick.