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Home > Articles > University of Pennsylvania Dermatologist Closer to Hair Loss Cure

University of Pennsylvania Dermatologist Closer to Hair Loss Cure

by Alex Kilpatrick

While hair loss can affect both genders, the condition is more prominent in men, commonly in the form of androgenetic alopecia or male-pattern baldness, which has no cure.

According to estimates by the National Institutes of Health, about 35 million American men suffer from male-pattern baldness, which can drastically change a man’s appearance. Many men attempt to mask their gradual hair loss with toupees, hats, headbands, comb overs or hairlines that start at the crown of their heads, while those with more money opt for expensive hair transplant surgery.

Xiaowei “George” Xu, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told that human hair is a complex organ made up of two different types of cells, epithelial cells, which make up the hair shaft, and dermal papillae cells, which regulate the proliferation of epithelial cells and influence hair growth.

Male-pattern baldness sufferers lose both epithelial cells and dermal papillae cells, causing follicular miniaturization, a condition in which a hair follicle becomes gradually smaller until it is lost altogether.

According to Xu, hair loss is difficult to treat since epithelial stem cells, localized in a stem-cell rich area of the hair follicle called the bulge, are necessary for hair to grow. Hair growth cannot occur if these stem cells are absent.

Researchers have successfully isolated epithelial stem cells from the hair follicle but have been unable to multiply them, limiting progress in the battle against hair loss.

Xu and his colleagues have recently made a breakthrough in the search for a solution to this problem. His research team, including experts from the Department of Dermatology at Penn Medicine, the Department of Biology in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has found a method to amplify and make scalable amounts of epithelial stem cells.

Xu and his collaborators added three genes to dermal fibroblasts, a type of human skin cell, and converted them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can differentiate into any type of cell in the body. The researchers converted the induced pluripotent stem cells into a large number of epithelial stem cells, usually found in a hair follicle’s bulge.

Published in Nature Communications and funded by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the study marked the first time anyone has created large amounts of epithelial stem cells capable of producing the epithelial component of hair follicles.

Xu told that a key factor in the study’s discovery was manipulating the timing and growth factor of iPSCs to force them to differentiate into epithelial cells.

In order to determine if the iPSC-derived epithelial stem cells could make human hair follicles, the researchers mixed the epithelial stem cells with dermal papillae cells from a mouse and grafted the cells onto the skin of immuno-deficient mice. These cells were able to produce human epidermis and hair follicles.

“[The hair follicles were] nearly identical to the epithelial stem cells directly isolated from a hair follicle—biochemically, in gene expression, as well as functionally,” Xu told

Xu told that his research is promising in finding a human hair loss treatment. The researchers have found a way to create epithelial stem cells, but they now must determine how to maintain and multiply human dermal papillae cells. Xu says the ultimate goal is to be able to make a hair follicle in a lab.

“I think we can probably make that happen in 10 years,” Xu told “I’m pretty confident because we are very close. There is a lot of promise, but there is still a long way to go. But I think it’s very much possible.”

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