Health

A Chemical Used in French Fries and Silly Putty Might Help With Hair Loss

Researchers grew hair follicles from mice using polydimethylsiloxane, which is used in a variety of household products. The next step is human hair cells.

John Carey via Getty Images

Would you like hair with that?

A silicone compound added to deep-fryer oil may turn out to be a great host for growing hair, Japanese researchers report.

Scientists at Yokohama National University were looking for a way to grow mouse cells that turn into hair follicles in their laboratory. And a chip made of polydimethylsiloxane, commonly used to keep cooking oil from foaming, makes a great platform, said Junji Fukuda, one of the researchers behind the experiment.

Oxygen can pass through polydimethylsiloxane, allowing the tissues — known as hair follicle germs — to grow in tiny pockets embedded onto a chip made of the polymer, Fukuda told Seeker. The material is also transparent, allowing researchers to observe the tissue with a microscope.

“We got cells including hair follicle stem cells from mice and seeded them in our home-made culture vessel,” Fukuda said. “We cultured them outside of the body for three days, and then transplanted the small tissues in mice. In two to three weeks, hairs grew.”

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In addition to the oil used to cook French fries at your local burger joint, polydimethylsiloxane is used in a variety of household and automotive products, including fabric softener, caulk, and antifreeze. It’s also an ingredient in the bouncy, ink-lifting Silly Putty. In the Japanese study, the liquid polymer was poured over a mold to make chips about 20 mm (3/4 inch) square, with about 300 tiny wells on each.

The study was published February 1 in the research journal Biomaterials. Dr. Marc Glashofer, a New Jersey dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic procedures and skin cancer surgery, told Seeker that while the polymer’s association with fast food has gotten a lot of attention, that’s less notable than the “cutting edge” results Fukuda and his colleagues obtained.

“There are people that have been trying to treat stem cells within the hair follicle itself,” Glashofer said. “The hair follicle also promotes wound healing on the skin, and those cells can get differentiated into hair follicles.” But the Japanese technique points toward “the next chapter” in efforts to regrow hair.

“If you can make these hairs and promote these hairs in an animal model, the next step should be trying to test it in vivo and see if you can maintain these hairs that are grown in a live patient,” he said.

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Fukuda said his team has just started working toward a test involving human hair cells, with the hope of testing the process in people within five years. But the process would have to be scaled up before it’s feasible as a treatment for hair loss.

“In our approach, we need to increase the number of cells in culture so that you will get hundreds or thousand times more hairs from your several hairs,” he said.

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