When the word “cloning” comes up, most minds jump to science fiction films, or real world larger-than-life experiments like Dolly the sheep. Few imagine a full head of cloned hair, a concept that has been in the works for decades and is inching ever closer to commercialization.
Hair cloning encompasses several experimental approaches to hair loss treatment. While this includes the duplication of entire hair follicles, most success in the field has come out of taking cells from hair follicles, or cells that could be directed toward hair follicle growth, and multiplying them in a lab before injecting them back into the scalp.
“Those injected cells can act like hair seeds,” says Dr. Ken Washenik, former President of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery and Medical Director of Bosley, a group of hair restoration clinics with over 60 locations across the United States. “They turn the existing hair follicle structures that have been miniaturized back on.”
Technically, this approach doesn’t clone the hair itself, which is why Washenik prefers to call it “cell-based regenerative therapy for hair follicles,” a term he admits doesn’t sound quite as exciting, but more accurately describes the process.
The arduous path from laboratory to clinic
Washenik is the former CEO of the Aderans Research Institute (ARI), a group that led the charge for hair cloning in the early 2000’s. During his time working with the ARI, he and his team brought their work from a theoretical concept to the point of human trials.
“The concept has been around for nearly 20 years, and the proof of concept from over a decade to 15 years,” says Washenik. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet been translated from a concept that’s established and understood to something helps people improve their hair-loss situation, day in and day out.”
This lack of dependability is one of the main factors keeping hair cloning in the lab and unavailable for widespread use. To this end, several groups continue to develop the procedure and create new techniques under the hair cloning umbrella.
After decades in the field, Washenik remains optimistic that hair cloning is a solution of the near future. “We’ve been working on this in earnest since the beginning of the century — our hope, of course, is that it’s just around the corner.”
Unfortunately, he can’t say exactly when the revolutionary treatment will be ready for market. “It’s such a simple, obvious question, but one I absolutely won’t answer because every time anyone does, myself included, we’re proven wrong,” he says. “I wish I could, because then I’d make my own appointment.”
The many expected benefits of hair cloning
While current hair loss solutions offer support for many, hair cloning could open the door to a host of new possibilities.
“Finding a way to grow new hairs — that’s the Holy Grail,” says Washenik. “Creating new hair follicles would allow us to grow hairs in burns and scars during reconstructive surgical procedures. It would be wonderful, because in these instances you often don’t have enough follicles to move them around as part of the regular hair transplantation process, and medications have no effect.”
For those with more typical forms of hair loss, hair cloning would still offer several benefits over today’s options.
“Current treatments require constant maintenance,” says Washenik. “If I stop using my Minoxidil, if I stop taking my Finasteride, the transplanted follicles will stay there but my other hairs will continue to miniaturize and fade away.”
Hair cloning could offer a maintenance-free solution, where hair would continue to grow without any medications.
“The hair’s growth cycle spans over several years — it grows inside the follicle, eventually falls out, and is replaced,” Washenik explains. “When you suffer from permanent hair loss, that process just peters out over time. If the hair cloning process works for one hair cycle, then it will work for a few years. If it changes your follicle forever, then it could work for decades.”
Without knowing when hair cloning will be available — and in what form — it’s impossible to say what the price for the procedure might be. But like many procedures, costs will most likely drop as techniques improve.
It’s also difficult to predict specifics, like which types of hair loss will be treatable, but Washenik is hopeful that over time an increasingly wide range of patients will benefit from the procedure.
“Depending on its final form, hair cloning should work for male and female pattern baldness,” says Washenik. “There are certain details that we won’t know until the final entity comes out… or until the first entity comes out. And since we still don’t have a first entity, we are far from a final entity.”
While you wait: current hair loss treatments
There are already steps currently available for those looking forward to hair cloning, as some groups have begun laying the groundwork necessary for future hair cloning treatments.
HairClone, a UK based organization, is offering to cryopreserve and bank patients’ hair follicles. Once a commercial hair cloning technique is available, these follicles could be used to offer patients a revitalized hairline. This preservation is also allowing the group to further fund their research into hair cloning techniques.
Though hair cloning is likely the solution of the future, current hair regeneration and transplantation techniques offer a wide variety of effective solutions to help thinning hairlines.
Existing techniques generally work by slowing or reversing the miniaturization of hair follicles to maintain existing hair, and by moving healthy hair follicles from denser areas to balding areas.
“Low-level laser treatments, PRP, and medications such as Minoxidil and Finasteride are all useful,” says Washenik. “The treatments for hair loss that we have right now are so good that there’s no way I’d ever tell anybody not to avail themselves of what already exists — I definitely think we have too many good things available right now to wait.”