Baseball caps that blast laser beams on to the head, potent medicines, shampoos, serums, mousses and creams. Even ‘vampire hair-facials’ – injections of a patient’s own blood into the scalp – all carry the same enticing promise: to halt or even reverse hair loss.
And, as bizarre or painful as many may sound, there’s no lack of demand.
Thinning hair affects half the population – men and women – to some degree. Little surprise, then, that the hair restoration market is worth £6 billion in the UK alone. The problem is, these often expensive products, procedures and treatments usually fail to stand up to scrutiny when put through medical trials.
Even hair transplant operations, which involve taking individual follicles from one part of the hair and placing them into a thinning area to restore fullness, produce results that are patchy.
A new hair loss treatment might be able to help patients if they seek help for their condition at an early stage
Natasha Stallman, 51, a teaching assistant, from Essex, pictured, was one of the patients on the trial who sacrificed a 'coke can-sized' volume of tummy fat to improve her hair
Before her treatment, Ms Stallman noticed her hair was thinning and sought assistance
And so, despite the best efforts of scientists, a definitive cure for baldness has always been a pipe dream fantasy – until studies emerged late last year suggesting that stem cells could be the answer.
These so-called ‘master cells’, which exist throughout the body, have the remarkable ability to reproduce almost endlessly and are integral in our natural growth and healing processes. Stem cell treatment has long been a source of hope in so-called regenerative medicine.
The idea is that, by extracting them from blood, fat, or skin, they could be grown and modified in a laboratory, then re-injected so they integrate with tissues, aiding repair and regeneration. Studies have shown stem cells have the potential for use in the treatment of the degenerative nerve condition multiple sclerosis, heart disease and even blindness. Now, early-stage trial results suggest a new method of using stem cells derived from a patient’s stomach fat may not just halt hair loss, but reverse it.
In 2017, researchers from Spain, the US and the UK tested the treatment, called Kerastem, on nine patients. Six months later, hair volume had increased by an average of a third, with one patient seeing almost double the amount of hairs on his head. Then, in February this year, US doctors performed further tests on 71 patients, some with very early signs of hair loss. The study produced similarly impressive results, and most remarkably, a year after the procedure, new hair continued to grow.
Final-stage trials are planned but a select number of US clinics have already started offering the treatment – at eye-watering prices.
So in a bid to find out if the £8,000 procedure is worth it, The Mail on Sunday asked consultant plastic surgeon, Olivier Amar, to assist us in conducting a small trial of our own. A year ago we recruited two volunteers suffering hair thinning.
The results were astounding and have even surprised the experts involved. Just three and a half months after the 90-minute procedure, our guinea pigs saw their hair volume increase by a fifth. A year later, at the final testing stage last week, the amount of hair lining the crown, temples and decorating the rear of the head, had nearly doubled.
Nurse consultant Paul Read, 35, started to notice his hair thinning once he hit 21 and feared, like his father he would be bald by 40
At a number of points over the past 12 months, we had the volunteers’ scalps photographed using a specialist medical camera. The pictures were analysed by skin experts Canfield, and show that, at the end of our trial, both volunteers have a level of thickness similar to that of a person without any, significant alopecia.
The results are remarkable. But how does this treatment succeed where all others have failed?
The first challenge was finding appropriate volunteers, as the treatment may not be effective for everyone, according to the studies. Experts suggest those most suitable will have early stage hair loss – those whose hair is receding, thinning on the crown, or with a small bald spot.
‘Think more Prince Harry than Prince William,’ said surgeon Mr Amar, who works at the private Cadogan Clinic in West London.
Candidates also couldn’t be too slim, as the treatment takes stem cell-rich fat from the lower abdomen or inner thigh area. ‘Patients must have a can of Coke worth of fat to spare,’ says Mr Amar.
The selected candidates were Paul Read, 35, a nurse consultant from Horsham, West Sussex, and Natasha Stallman, 51, a teaching assistant, from Essex.
Paul said his ‘thick, dark, curly hair’ was his crowning glory. But, at 21, he began to thin on top.
‘I would have rather lost my arm than my hair,’ he says. ‘But my dad was bald by 40, so I pretty much knew it was inevitable.
He said: 'I’ve tried everything – shampoos, foams, creams, sprays, gels. I’ve spent £4,000 on treatments, and I even had my own blood injected into my scalp. Nothing has really worked’
‘I’ve tried everything – shampoos, foams, creams, sprays, gels. I’ve spent £4,000 on treatments, and I even had my own blood injected into my scalp. Nothing has really worked.’ Paul was particularly conscious of wispy spots around his hairline and bald spots on his crown, prominent when wet.
Hair loss, in men and women, is usually down to a combination of genetic predisposition and a hormone called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. Some people, for reasons not fully understood, can become sensitised to their own DHT. Hormone levels also fluctuate during the natural ageing process, tipping the normal balance, meaning there is more DHT in circulation.
In both cases, DHT can cause the microscopic part of the skin that grows the hair – the follicle – to shrink. The hairs produced are therefore thinner, shorter and lighter. One by one, the follicles become too small to produce any hair at all.
Medically, the process is known as androgenic alopecia. A host of medical conditions, medications such as cholesterol-lowering and anti-clotting drugs, steroids and antidepressants, can also trigger hair loss.
As many as 90 per cent of mothers lose hair after childbirth, again due to fluctuating hormone levels. Drugs, such