A New Approach for Alopecia Areata: Harnessing Stem Cells to Regrow Hair and Reduce Inflammation

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Alopecia areata (AA) is an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, often in patches, on the scalp and body. It affects around 2% of people in the United States. While the exact cause is unknown, AA is associated with inflammation around hair follicles caused by T cells. Currently, there are limited treatment options for AA that have mixed results. However, new research shows promise for using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) as an effective treatment. In this article, we’ll explore how MSCs may help treat AA by reducing inflammation and promoting hair regrowth.

Understanding Alopecia Areata

AA can occur at any age, but often first appears in childhood or young adulthood. Hair loss may be localized to a specific area or more widespread. In some cases, all hair on the scalp or body is lost, known as alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis.

The course of AA is unpredictable – hair loss may recur after regrowth or remain stable for long periods. Stress is a common trigger for the start of AA or for exacerbation. Genetics also play a role, as AA runs in families.

While not physically harmful, AA takes a psychological toll due to the social stigma around hair loss. Many patients experience anxiety, depression, and lowered self-esteem. Finding better treatments is essential to improve quality of life.

The underlying mechanism of AA involves an abnormal immune response. T cells, a type of white blood cell, cluster around hair follicles. These T cells produce inflammatory signals like interferon-gamma, IL-6, and TNF-alpha. Inflammation impairs the normal hair growth cycle, causing hairs to prematurely enter the “resting” phase and fall out.

Current AA Treatments And Limitations

Treatment for AA aims to reduce inflammation and stimulate hair regrowth. Topical or oral corticosteroids are commonly used to calm inflammation, but long-term use has side effects. Other systemic immunosuppressants may be prescribed but also carry risks.

Localized injections of steroids directly into affected patches on the scalp is another option. However, benefits are temporary and repeated injections are needed.

Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) has shown promise in small studies. In PRP treatment, the patient’s own blood is drawn, concentrated, and reinjected into bald patches. Growth factors in platelets may help stimulate hair follicles. However, results are mixed and some patients see no improvement.

More effective and lasting therapies are needed, especially for severe, extensive cases of AA. Recently, research on mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) indicates they may successfully treat AA with less risk than current options.

Introducing Mesenchymal Stem Cells

Mesenchymal stem cells are multipotent adult stem cells found throughout the body in locations like bone marrow, fat, and umbilical cord tissue. They can give rise to various cell types including bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat cells. An important feature of MSCs is their powerful ability to modulate immune responses. MSCs can:

  • Suppress proliferation and activation of T cells and other immune cells
  • Reduce secretion of pro-inflammatory factors
  • Promote the production of anti-inflammatory molecules
  • Support regeneration of damaged tissue

These immunomodulatory effects make MSCs promising for autoimmune and inflammatory conditions like AA. MSCs derived from umbilical cord tissue are a particularly abundant source and lack the ethical concerns of embryonic stem cells.

MSC Research for Alopecia Areata Treatment

Preclinical studies indicate that MSCs may be effective in treating AA by dampening immune attacks against hair follicles. Researchers have investigated both adipose-derived and hair follicle-derived MSCs.

For example, one 2021 study used hair follicle MSCs (HF-MSCs) in a mouse model of AA. HF-MSCs were isolated from human scalp tissue and grown in the lab. Mice with AA were injected with HF-MSCs or a saline control weekly for 3 weeks.

After 6 weeks, HF-MSC treated mice had less hair loss compared to controls. Skin samples showed more growing (anagen) hair follicles and fewer inflammatory T cells around the follicles. Levels of inflammatory signals like IL-6 and TNF-alpha were reduced with HF-MSCs.

The researchers concluded HF-MSCs suppressed AA in mice by blocking immune overactivity and promoting hair regrowth.

Other studies have explored using adipose-derived MSCs. One involved 9 participants with AA who received injections of their own cultured adipose MSCs. After 12 weeks, 5 patients had significant hair regrowth. No adverse effects occurred.

Researchers found increases in protective signaling molecules and decreases in inflammatory factors like IL-6 and TNF-alpha in treated skin biopsies. The results indicate adipose MSCs may also dampen damaging inflammation in AA.

Overall, early clinical results support the safety and potential efficacy of MSC therapy for AA. Umbilical cord tissue provides an abundant, non-controversial source of MSCs that may be used as an “off-the-shelf” treatment.

Want to learn more about a treatment right for you? Contact Stem Cell Medical Center today to learn how stem cells can help you regrow your hair and regain your confidence. Our caring team is happy to answer your questions and get you started on the path to regrowth! Our experienced providers can help evaluate if you are a candidate and answer any questions you have about the process.

References:

Deng, W., Zhang, Y., Wang, W. et al. Hair follicle-derived mesenchymal stem cells decrease alopecia areata mouse hair loss and reduce inflammation around the hair follicle. Stem Cell Res Ther 12, 548 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13287-021-02614-0

Gentile, P., Garcovich, S. et al. Stem Cell Review and Reports 12, 667–671 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12015-016-9689-9Xing, L., Dai, Z., Jabbari, A. et al. Alopecia areata is driven by cytotoxic T lymphocytes and is reversed by JAK inhibition. Nat Med20, 1043–1049 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm.3645