Hope in hair: Transplanted follicles could better heal wounds, prevent longterm scars

LONDON — The best Band-Aids could be sprouting from your scalp, a new study suggests. British researchers say hair follicles may have wound-healing properties, with the potential to avoid lifelong scars that can be damaging to one’s confidence.

The study out of Imperial College London reports that scars treated with hair follicle transplants began to act similarly to uninjured skin, generating new cells, blood vessels, gene expression, and even restoring itself through collagen.

“Around 100 million people per year acquire scars in high-income countries alone, primarily as a result of surgeries. The global incidence of scars is much higher and includes extensive scarring formed after burn and traumatic injuries. Our work opens new avenues for treating scars and could even change our approach to preventing them,” says Dr Francisco Jiménez, lead hair transplant surgeon at the Mediteknia Clinic and Associate Research Professor at University Fernando Pessoa Canarias, in Gran Canaria, Spain, in a statement.

How can hair follicle transplants improve wound care?

Scar tissue in the skin lacks hair, sweat glands, blood vessels and nerves, which are all needed for proper regulation of body temperature, as well as pain and overall sensory detection. Scarring can also disrupt movement ability, thus inducing stress and discomfort for someone.

On the other hand, uninjured skin is constantly remodeling with the help of the hair follicle. Hair on the skin helps promote faster healing, and in the past, hair transplants have produced results consistent with this notion. To explore this, a team researchers hypothesized that hair follicle transplants could make it so that scars can also remodel themselves.

They performed their experiments on three volunteers, transplanting hair follicles into the mature scars on their scalp in 2017. They chose the most common type of scar, called normotrophic scars, which often form after surgery. Using a microscope, they imaged 3mm-thick biopsies of the scars just before transplantation, and then again afterwards at months two, four, and six. They discovered that the scars made a significant shift, adapting properties of healthy skin on a genetic and structural level. More specifically, they found that the scars expressed 719 genes differently in comparison, and they encouraged cell and blood vessel growth.

The work doesn’t stop here, especially since the team can’t pinpoint exactly how the transplants result in such changes. Thus, they look ahead to revealing root mechanistic reasons in order to begin developing effective interventions that promote skin repair without the need for transplants. They can even expand this work to test how their findings function in cases of more severe scarring, such as heart attacks, cirrhosis, or fatty liver.

“After scarring, the skin never truly regains its pre-wound functions, and until now all efforts to remodel scars have yielded poor results. Our findings lay the foundation for exciting new therapies that can rejuvenate even mature scars and restore the function of healthy skin,” says lead author Dr Claire Higgins, of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering.

“This work has obvious applications in restoring people’s confidence, but our approach goes beyond the cosmetic as scar tissue can cause problems in all our organs,” she adds.

The findings are published in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine.

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