Hair cloning and hair multiplication are state-of-the-art technologies, currently being researched for the treatment of hair loss (1).
The concept of cloning hair is to extract healthy hair follicle cells from a patient and cultivate multiple copies of them in vitro. The multiplied cells are then placed back into the balding scalp. There, they resume their normal growth.
This post will break down the process of hair cloning. It will then discuss the latest research on the topic, as well as when hair cloning procedures might become available to the public.
What is Hair Cloning (Hair Multiplication)?
Hair multiplication is proposed to work along similar lines to actual cloning: the creation of identical copies of a biological entity. But whereas cloning usually involves making copies of entire organisms, hair multiplication is about making massive numbers of copies of individual hairs (2).
At this point, hair cloning/hair multiplication are umbrella terms. Because this is a technology still in its infancy, there is no standard method yet. This is unlike existing hair transplants, where you will get one of the same two basic methods (FUE or FUT) regardless of which clinic you visit.
In hair cloning, we are still at a stage where various research centers and companies around the world are pursuing their own – often very different – versions of hair multiplication. Which of these different technologies will eventually mature first and come to dominate the market is still not clear.
How Is It Different to Hair Transplants?
Regardless of the particular technology used, there is a fundamental difference that sets apart all hair multiplication technologies from the hair transplants already available.
The standard hair transplants of today can only redistribute the existing number of healthy hair follicles on your scalp. They do this by removing follicles from the hairy areas in the back and sides of the head (the so-called donor areas) and planting them into balding areas.
There are clear limits to this process: surgeons can only remove so many follicles before the hair density in the donor area drops to cosmetically unacceptable levels (3).
Hair multiplication actually uses the existing hair follicles to increase the total number of follicles on your scalp. And there are no theoretical limits to how many times scientists can multiply a single follicle.
Hair multiplication quite literally holds the promise of unlimited hair.
So in principle, even if you are a completely bald Norwood 7, a hair multiplication process could be able to restore a full head of hair.
A major focus in many of the hair multiplication technologies involves hair follicle stem cells (4). These are relatively undifferentiated cells. They have the ability to develop and multiply into any different number of cell types. These include skin cells, sebaceous gland cells, and, of course, new hair follicles.
Other Applications of Cell Therapy
Hair multiplication is a special case of cell therapy: the use of the patient’s own cells to treat a medical problem. We have already had cell therapies in other diseases for decades. An example is the treatment of some blood cancers. Here doctors use chemotherapy to eradicate cancer, but this process also devastates the immune system. Doctors then take the patient’s own cells and essentially recreate the entire immune system from scratch.
With the rapid advance of technology, clinicians and biotech companies are now exploring cell therapy for the treatment of non-threatening, cosmetic conditions. Just like hair loss.
What Are the Advantages of Hair Cloning?
At the moment, there are three popular ways to treat thinning and balding.
- The first is by using an FDA-approved medication such as Rogaine (minoxidil) or Propecia (finasteride). These drugs are effective, albeit limited in their results. There is also a risk of adverse effects including sexual dysfunction (in the case of finasteride) and contact dermatitis (with minoxidil).
- A second popular treatment involves the use of tonics or other hair products with natural ingredients, such as pygeum and saw palmetto extract. These work via natural means. There are also limits to how much new hair they can grow.
- A third, and potentially more lasting solution, is to undergo a hair transplant surgery. We mentioned the limits of these procedures above. They are also very costly, and often leave scarring.
Hair cloning is likely to be preferable to all of these methods, in that:
- There is a minimal risk of visible scarring
- There are no hidden side effects
- The procedure is comparatively short
- The number of healthy follicles in the donor area is not a limiting factor
- It can work for women
- It could be equally effective for pattern hair loss as well as alopecia areata
- To top it off, a successful hair cloning procedure could, theoretically, yield permanent results.
What’s the State of the Field in 2021?
Many private companies and universities have had their own hair multiplication research program over the past 15 years. These include Berlin Technical University, Durham University, Intecytex, Hairclone, Riken Centre for Developmental Biology, and RepliCel Life Sciences.
Here is a look at them in more detail.
In 2010, researchers at Berlin Technical University made headlines by announcing they had used stem cells to create new hair follicles in mice. The researchers’ ambition was to replicate this feat in humans. Yet the technical obstacles proved insurmountable.
Similar research programs in other universities also died out. The private sector is now leading the research into hair multiplication technologies.
One of the early, more promising companies, Intercytex, wound down operations some years back. That company’s former CEO now heads a new company called Hairclone (6). In 2018 Hairclone launched a crowdfunding campaign. Members of the general public can invest in the company in exchange for equity and membership perks.
Just last year, Hairclone launched the world’s first-ever hair follicle bank. Men and women can store follicles for future use when the hair multiplication technology has matured. The rationale of the hair bank is that the quality of hair declines with age. This means that younger versions of your hair will give the best results in the future.
Hairclone have offered no date for when they expect their first patient to be able to use their stored hair cells.
RepliCel Life Sciences is a company that has boasted one of the most active research programs in recent years (7). They also arguably drew the most attention in the hair loss community.
RepliCel has teamed up with Japanese company Shiseido to promote their hair multiplication method. It is called RCH-01, and they plan to launch in Japan first (8).
The RCH-01 technology uses a part of the follicle containing so-called dermal sheath cup cells. Doctors remove these from the back of the patient’s head, cultivate them in massive numbers, and then inject them back to the balding areas.
In March 2020 Shiseido published the results of phase 2 research carried out in Japan (9). They were underwhelming. The men who undertook the treatment had meager hair regrowth, probably less than what they would get from minoxidil.
It looks like we are still far removed from the moment RCH-01 becomes publicly available. And at this point, it is possible the project never makes it to market.
Another Japanese research institute that has made a lot of headlines is Riken. In 2016 Riken established a joint hair multiplication venture with electronics giant Kyocera (10). In 2018 Riken and Kyocera announced they would be starting animal testing of their method. They have made no new announcements since then. It is certain at this point that the original Riken/Kyocera goal of bringing this technology to market by 2020 will not materialize.
In the North American market, the main player in hair multiplication research is Stemson Therapeutics (11). The company was founded just two years ago. They publicized the outline of their technology this past summer, at the Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. According to the indications given at that meeting, Stemson hoped to start clinical trials in humans in early 2021. We will have to wait and see if this turns out to be overly optimistic.
A fascinating technology already on the market is the so-called HASCI method (12). This is offered by the Hair Science Institute in its clinics in the Netherlands, UK, France, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. The method is similar to a standard hair transplant. Surgeons invasively remove follicles from healthy donor areas and transplant them onto balding parts of the scalp.
Where the method is unique is that only part of the follicle is removed. The rest remains in place, where it regenerates and grows out new hairs in the donor area. The result is that multiple transplants are possible drawing hairs from the same donor area. This process leads to an increase in the total number of healthy follicles on the head.
A similar method to HASCI transplantation is being developed by the CFS clinics in Barcelona and Madrid (13). Directing this is Dr. Christophe Guillemat.
Just last year, a partnership was announced between German biotech TissUse and a Japanese company by the name of J. Hewitt (14). The aim of the partnership is to promote TissUse’s “smart transplant” technology in Japan. In principle, TissUse’s transplant can also supply an unlimited number of new hair follicles.
Other smaller players to keep an eye out for in the future include Rapunzel Bioscience and Stemore. (15)
What is the Cost of Hair Cloning?
At this point, none of the non-invasive hair multiplication methods discussed here are commercially available. Meaning we have no details on pricing.
When the technology hits the market, it will not be cheap. It will almost certainly be more expensive than a standard hair transplant you can get today. Especially for the first few years, where a limited number of clinics will offer it.
So hair loss might indeed become optional in a few years, but only for the rich.
The best proxy method now on the market is the HASCI method. As mentioned, this combines elements of a classic hair transplant with stem cell regeneration. It has been available for some years now.
The cost of treatment is not flat. Instead, male head types are divided into 12 different categories according to the extent of hair loss. Typically 1000 grafts will cost around $6000. In the most severe cases, it is unlikely that the method can restore a full head of hair.
Rough prices for men range from around a minimum of $3,700 to around $17,800 for the largest number of grafts. These prices are estimates based on treatment in the Netherlands or France. Exact prices will vary with exchange rates and market conditions.
CFS Hair Transplant Clinic in Barcelona will not make its latest treatments available to the public until they can guarantee a 90 percent improvement rate. The cost of their most advanced transplant treatment is currently between around $7,500 and $8,000.
Conclusion: When Will Hair Cloning Become Available?
As we mentioned above, there are some techniques currently available that are not exactly hair cloning, but work along similar lines. In particular, the HASCI treatment is currently available in many European countries.
We cannot know for sure when real hair cloning procedures, such as those by Replicel and Stemson Therapeutics, will come to market.
Hair strands are seemingly very simple keratin structures, without any complex function. Hair multiplication is also compatible with theoretical biology. Yet despite this, hair multiplication has proven deceptively difficult in practice.
Time and again, we have seen very promising press releases that raised excitement in the hair loss community. These were followed by nothing.
Other times, like with the Shiseido results published in March 2020, what we do get falls far short of expectations.
At this point, a realistic estimate is that we will need to wait at least until 2025 to 2027 until the first non-invasive hair multiplication technology comes to market.
Moreover, there are still questions over the long-term efficacy of cloning. In other words, will the newly cloned hairs really be able to live indefinitely? Or will there be a need for regular “top-up” treatments to maintain the effects? Only time will tell.