OK, it's not exactly cloning, although that's what it's come to be called. Researchers working to perfect the new technique prefer the term "hair multiplication."
And no, it's not ready for prime time. Not yet, says Ken Washenik, MD, PhD. Washenik is medical director for Bosley, the giant hair restoration company that's one of several firms racing to bring hair multiplication to market. He's also clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
"There is no doubt it will be a tremendous breakthrough," Washenik tells WebMD. "It is the thing people have been waiting for. There have been so many remedies for hair losshair loss that didn't pan out. This is one that really looks like it is going to happen -- and happen in the next few years."
It's not just hype, says hair researcher George Cotsarelis, professor of dermatology and director of the hair and scalp clinic, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Cotsarelis consults for Bosley, but is not involved in the company's research program.
"It is hard to predict whether they will be successful, but there is good evidence that will happen," Cotsarelis tells WebMD. "It is not quackery -- they are not charlatans. It is based on real scientific knowledge. But there are a lot of hurdles still to overcome."
The promise of early research often evaporates in the harsh light of clinical testing. Yet Washenik predicts that hair multiplication will be available for hair restoration in three or four years.
Hair Restoration Today and Tomorrow
The hair follicle is a tiny organ with an odd power: It contains stem cells that can regenerate it.
At the base of the follicle is the hair bulb, where wildly growing matrix cells become hair. A little farther up the follicle is the mysterious feature called the bulge. That's where follicle stem cells live.
When they get the right set of chemical signals, these self-renewing cells divide. They don't divide like normal cells, in which both halves become new cells that keep splitting and developing. Only one half of the follicle stem cell does that. The other half becomes a new stem cell, and stays put for future regeneration.
The Holy Grail of hair restoration would be to figure out exactly how these chemical signals work. A future drug might contain all the signals needed to grow hair in bald areas of the head. But the complexity of the body's chemical language means such a drug is decades from reality, Washenik says.
But it's already possible to seed bald areas of the head by transplanting follicle from areas where there's still plenty of hair. This works pretty well for men, who generally don't lose the hair on the back of the head. For women, however, age-related hair losshair loss often affects the back of the head. That's why hair transplants tend to be much less successful for women.
And there are only so many hair follicles. Even successful hair transplants don't grow as rich a crop of hair as most people would like.
Hair Cloning: What It Is -- and Isn't
The basic idea behind hair cloning is to harvest healthy follicle stem cells. But instead of transplanting them right away, researchers have learned how to make the stem cells or seeds multiply.
It's not cloning, which uses different techniques. New follicle stem cells are grown in laboratory cultures. Then they are attached to tiny skin-cell scaffolds and implanted into bald areas of the scalp.
"The idea is to take these cells from the bulb of the hair, grow them in culture, and come back with an increased number of hair seeds you could inject into the scalp," Washenik says. "You start with a small number of hairs and come back with a larger number of hair seeds, and inject them into one area, and just create brand-new hair follicles."
Moreover, researchers have discovered that some follicle cells do more than regenerate. They give off chemical signals. Nearby follicle cells -- which have shrunk during the agingaging process -- respond to these signals by regenerating and once again making healthy hair. It works in lab mice. And, Washenik says, it works in human skin cultures, too.
"So this three-to-four-years-away number is not fantasy," Washenik says. "It is biotechnology research, and nature can always step in the way and slow things down. But the concept of tissue-engineered hair growth to create a new hair organ looks very real."