On April 1, a distinguished team of researchers from Japan published an important paper in the journal Science Advances describing how they successfully grew skin tissue in the lab (using reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells) which was then transplanted onto mice. The transplanted skin included fully functioning hair follicles with perfect growth and resting phase cycling (“no significant differences in the hair cycle periods were found between natural and bioengineered follicles“), sweat glands and sebaceous glands. Note that the original cells were also taken from mice (from their gums to be precise). Most importantly, there were no tumors or other life threatening disorders seen in the transplant recipient mice. It is still too early to tell whether such skin can act as real skin when it comes to its function of protecting the human body, cooling it and so forth.
It seems like this team was led by Dr. Ryoji Takagi from Tokyo University of Science and the renowned Dr. Takashi Tsuji from RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, with further collaboration with several other Japanese institutions. On a somewhat related note, the main initial work surrounding induced pluripotent stem cells (known as iPS cells or iPSCs) was undertaken by Japanese scientist Dr. Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for this in 2012.
When I first read this story I was planning to include it in my next brief items of interest post around the middle of this month. I did not want to devote a whole blog post to this development (primarily because of the unclear human testing time frame projections involved — more on that later). However, this discovery soon started getting widespread global coverage. More importantly, 3 readers e-mailed me about it and probably another 10 posted about it in the comments to the last blog post! All the main hair loss forums have threads on this subject too. Here is some of the global coverage:
— Daily Mail.
The most debated issue on the hair loss forums has been the time frame before this is tested in humans. According to the BBC article “Researchers say this success will take 5-10 years to translate into humans.” According to the Mic article, “Optimistically, Tsuji said, they’re looking at sometime in the next 10 years.” According to the Popular Mechanics article, RIKEN researcher “Miho Ogawa estimates the first human trials will come within the next 10 years.”
I think that “within 10 years” could end up being in less than 5 years. I have three reasons for my optimism —
- Japan’s rapidly aging and declining population will need regenerative stem cell therapies well before most other countries in the world.
- As I have discussed on this blog many times in the past year or two, the Japanese government is nowadays extremely focused at speeding up human clinical trials in the regenerative medicine sector that will allow for short cuts such as skipping stage 3 clinical trials. I see no reason why they could also not speed up the process of moving from animal to human trials.
- When it comes to funding, Japan is a rich nation that can afford to spend substantially on such research. Both via government funding and private funding (including foreign based private funding). On a related not, in my last brief items of interest post from March, I discussed the recent collaboration between RIKEN and private sector company Meiji Seika related to hair loss (albeit it seems their might be some incorrect info in that announcement). Also, in my second last brief items of interest post from February, I discussed another collaboration between RIKEN and Adjuvant Cosmetics.
Finally, it should be noted that more than for hair loss sufferers, this research is especially relevant to those with serious skin injuries and burns. Moreover, these methods could one day be used to create functioning organs that are suitable for transplantation. I recently read that once we have self-driving cars, traffic fatalities will decline to negligible levels, resulting in a major increase in already serious organ donor shortages.