Hair cloning and hair multiplication are novel technologies currently being researched for the treatment of hair loss.
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 them back into the balding scalp, where they resume their normal growth.
In this post, I’ll break down the process of hair cloning. I’ll then recap the latest research on the topic, as well as when you might expect to see hair cloning procedures become available to the public.
By the way, if you want to find out about my hair regrowth story and the 10 steps that made my hair grow again you can click on my photo further down this article.
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.
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. Unlike existing hair transplants, where you will get one 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 one of these different technologies will eventually mature first and come to dominate the market is still up for grabs.
But 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: only so many follicles can be removed before the hair density in the donor area drops to cosmetically unacceptable levels.
But hair multiplication actually uses the existing hair follicles to increase the total number of follicles on your scalp. And there are no theorical limits to how many times a single follicle can be multiplied.
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. These are relatively undifferentiated cells that, according to the type of treatment they undergo, have the ability to develop and multiply into any different number of cell types. Including skin cells, sebaceous gland cells, and, of course, new hair follicles.
Hair multiplication is a special case of cell therapy: the use of the patient’s own cells to treat a medical problem. We’ve already had cell therapies in other diseases for decades. For example in the treatment of various blood cancers, where the patient’s own cells are used to essentially recreate the entire immune system after it has been damaged by chemotherapy.
It’s only to be expected that with the constant advance of technology, cell therapy is now being explored 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 have been shown to be effective, though there is a risk of adverse effects including impotence (in the case of finasteride) and contact dermatitis (with minoxidil).
And despite the deceptive advertisement used by many expensive hair loss clinics, these are by no means new treatments, having been on the market for many decades now.
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, but there is a limit 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 earlier. They are also very costly, and they 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 will be equally effective for women, whether they suffer from female pattern hair loss or other conditions like alopecia areata
- To top it off, a successful hair cloning procedure could, theoretically, yield permanent results.
What’s the state of the field in 2020?
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.
Let’s 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. Despite the researchers’ ambition to replicate this feat in humans, the technical obstacles proved insurmountable.
Similar research programs in other universities also died out, and the private sector is now leading the charge to bring the first viable hair multiplication technologies to market.
- 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. In 2018 Hairclone launched a crowdfunding campaign, whereby members of the general public can invest in the company in exchange for equity and membership perks.
And just last year, Hairclone launched the world’s first ever hair follicle bank, where 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, meaning the 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. And arguably drawn the most attention in the hair loss community.
RepliCel have teamed up with Japanese company Shiseido to promote their hair multiplication method called RCH-01, which they plan to launch in Japan first.
The RCH-01 technology uses a part of the follicle containing so-called dermal sheath cup cells. These cells are removed from the back of the patient’s head, cultivated in massive numbers, and then injected back to the balding areas.
But in March 2020 Shiseido published the results of phase 2 research carried out in Japan, and they were underwhelming to say the least. The men who undertook the treatment had meager hair regrowth, probably less than what is seen with minoxidil.
So it looks like we are still far removed from the moment RCH-01 becomes publicly available. And at this point we wouldn’t be surprised if 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. And in 2018 Riken and Kyocera announced they would be starting animal testing of their method. Nothing new has been announced since then.But what is certain at this point, is that the Riken/Kyocera original goal of bringing this technology to market by 2020 is not going to happen.
- In the North American market, arguably the main player in current hair multiplication research is Stemson Therapeutics. Founded just two years ago, the company publicized the outline of its 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’ll 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, 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 in that follicles are invasively removed from healthy donor areas and transplanted onto balding parts of the scalp.But where the method is unique is that only part of the follicle is removed. The remaining part of the hair follicle and stem cells that aren’t removed lead to the follicles regenerating themselves and growing out new hairs in the donor area.The result? Multiple transplants can be performed drawing hairs from the same donor area, in the process leading to an increase in the total number of healthy follicles on the head.
- A similar method to the HASCI transplantation is being developed by the CFS clinics in Barcelona and Madrid, under the direction of Dr Christophe Guillemat.And just last year, a partnership was announced between German biotech TissUse and a Japanese company by the name of J. Hewitt, with the aim 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.
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.
But it is certain that when the technology hits the market, it won’t 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. Which as we mentioned, combines elements of a classic hair transplant with stem cell regeneration, and 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 a full head of hair can be achieved.
Rough prices for men range from around $3,700, for scalps which require fewer grafts, to around $17,800 for the largest number of grafts. These prices are based on treatment in the Netherlands or France and will obviously 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 was mentioned above, there are some techniques currently available that aren’t exactly hair cloning, but which do work along similar lines. In particular, I’m speaking about the HASCI treatment that is currently being offered throughout Europe.
There’s no way to know for sure when real hair cloning procedures, such as those being developed by Replicel and Stemson Therapeutics, will become available.
Hair strands are seemingly very simple keratin structures, without any complex function. And hair multiplication is clearly compatible with theoretical biology.
Yet despite of this, hair multiplication has proven deceptively difficult in practice, and we have been “a few years away” for quite a few years now.
For example, it has been found that only a small number of germinative cells can be extracted with each shaft of hair. Adding to this, few such cells will survive after being reintroduced into the scalp, which makes it very difficult for them to generate a new follicle.
Another fundamental problem has to do with the difficulty in getting cells to keep on multiplying in vitro, after they have been extracted from the patient. Though simple in theory, this has thrown up many unexpected difficulties.
Even getting the direction in which the new follicles are oriented correct has proven difficult. Researchers have found that the new hairs grow out in all sort of odd directions, including ingrown hairs.
To tackle this problem, Stemson have found it necessary to create a tiny 3-D biodegradable scaffold -made with a special 3-D printer – to direct the new hairs to grow out correctly. This will have to be custom-made for each patient.
So it’s perhaps understandable that time and again, we have seen very promising press releases that raised excitement in the hair loss community, followed by basically nothing.
Or other times, like with the Shiseido results published 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. It could be later, but I doubt it will be earlier than that.
Moreover, there are still questions over the long-term efficacy of cloning. In other words, will the cloned hairs really be able to live indefinitely once they have grown out for the first time? Or will there be a need for regular “top-up” treatments to maintain the effects?
Only time will tell.