Scientists seeking a readily available supply of stem cells have uncovered an unlikely trove: hair follicles, which produce hair throughout life from cells with “stem-like” characteristics. Recent research hints that stem cells from hair follicles can produce other kinds of cells as well, including neurons, but the source of these progenitors has remained elusive.
Now Robert Hoffman and colleagues at the University of California at San Diego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have traced the cells to a part of the hair follicle known as the bulge area. In their findings, published online March 28 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team showed that bulge-area stem cells can remain in a primitive state for at least four weeks and can be encouraged to diversify into muscle tissue and neurons, in addition to hair-producing cells. The follicle-derived stem cells also became full-fledged neurons when transplanted into mice.
“Hair follicles may be an accessible source of stem cells with many therapeutic uses,” Hoffman says. Stem cells obtained in this way to treat neurodegenerative or other disorders could be taken from the patient’s own skin— avoiding both the ethical dilemma of using fetal cells and the dangers of immune-system rejection inherent in transplants.