By Randy Dotinga
MONDAY, Oct. 21 (HealthDay News) -- There's new hope for anyone who's bald or balding: Researchers report they're getting closer to the goal of cloning hair cells and coaxing them to grow hair once they're replanted in the scalp.
"We've been able to overcome the first block," said study co-author Angela Christiano, a professor of dermatology and genetics & development at the Center for Human Genetics at Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City.
For now, the research is in the early stages. Questions about costs and possible side effects remain unanswered, and it's not clear whether the technique will produce the kind of hair that people want in terms of traits like texture.
At issue is the need for a better way to replace hair in people who lose it, including an estimated 50 percent of people over the age of 50 who suffer from hair loss.
There are drugs to help people with hair loss, but they tend to focus on stimulating existing hair follicles to grow longer hairs, Christiano explained. In male-pattern baldness, men still have follicles that grow hair, but they produce "peach fuzz" instead of normal hair.
There are other treatment options, but they're not much better, one expert added.
"Surgical methods, mainly hair transplants, really just shuffle existing hair around from [the] back of scalp to front of scalp," said Dr. Luis Garza, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. "The main challenge is to grow a new hair follicle."
This new approach may also help more than just men with hair loss.
"About 90 percent of women with hair loss are not strong candidates for hair transplantation surgery because of insufficient donor hair," Christiano said in a university news release. "This method offers the possibility of inducing large numbers of hair follicles or rejuvenating existing hair follicles, starting with cells grown from just a few hundred donor hairs. It could make hair transplantation available to individuals with a limited number of follicles, including those with female-pattern hair loss, scarring alopecia and hair loss due to burns."