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Send in the Clones

Send in the Clones

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Researchers are busy finessing new developments in hair replacement therapy. Could genetic copying be the next big thing for those suffering from hair loss?

Just the word "cloning" conjures up science fiction images of pod people and Stepford Wives. But science is catching up to fiction in the production of genetically identical organisms, and one of the most promising applications for cloning is in the patient-driven field of hair replacement.

The science (and business) of restoring hair goes back to the 1930s, with innovations ranging from hair plugs to scalp reduction to laser-made incisions. However, one of the major drawbacks to all of the existing procedures pertains to the simple rule of supply and demand: The replacement hair must be harvested from somewhere else on the patient's scalp or body, which (not surprisingly) proves challenging for someone with already-thinning hair. In addition, the scars left in the wake of follicle removal are often no more cosmetically pleasing than the baldness itself. Both of these problems would be eliminated with cloning; a single hair removed from the patient could be turned into two hairs, two hairs could make four hairs, and four hairs could make eight hairs, etc.

The idea of hair cloning has been around for a while. Groundbreaking research by Roy Oliver and Colin Jahoda in the 1980s showed that lab-cultured hair roots (papillae) from rat whiskers could be implanted into the slits in their ears to regenerate hair. Which begs the question: If scientists can grow whiskers out of a rat's ear (or, for that matter, make an entire sheep out of an udder cell) why can't they figure out a way to replicate a few little strands of hair in a Petri dish?

The answer is that they simply haven't perfected the science enough to make it an option for the masses. Although, many groups are racing toward that goal. A British company called Intercytex, for example, is testing some of the methods on humans and has received a government grant for further research. And scientists at AntiCancer, Inc., a small biotechnology company whose primarily focus is on developing new diagnostic and therapeutic models for cancer treatment, were surprised to find that some of the skin cells grown in their lab were also producing hair. In fact, it is estimated that at least half a dozen organizations worldwide are currently pursuing cloning projects.

Still, some safety concerns have yet to be ruled out. For example, cells that induce new hair may induce malignant growths, such as tumors, as well. There is also the matter of FDA approval, which addresses not only the procedure's safety, but also its effectiveness. With all of this factored in, it could be years before the general public can benefit from hair follicle cloning — and even with this potentially unlimited supply of hair, researchers must also put some emphasis on the issue of aesthetics. There is an art to placing these new hairs on the scalp in patterns, angles and directions that simulate the way natural hair looks and behaves. After all, if the history of hair replacement has taught us anything, it is that having a lot of hair is not always the same as having good hair.

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