Spot the mouse, for that is her name, lived a hairless life — until nine months ago, when she suddenly gained a tuft of human hair on one side.
Spot is a test subject for Silicon Valley startup dNovo, a YCombinator company that set out on a mission in 2018 to find a cure for baldness. According to dNovo, the underlying cause of baldness is that your body stops generating new hair cells, which — like all cells — get their marching orders from stem cells. It claims its proprietary “reprogramming technology” can convert existing cells taken from your blood or another personal sample into new hair stem cells.
In theory, a procedure similar to Spot’s would graft those cells onto the area you might have been covering with a hat or comb-over. The graft then causes dormant hair cells to kick back into gear, and voila, your luscious locks are back again.
Three weeks after dNovo researchers grafted hair stem cells that had grown onto Spot and her fellow “hair deficient” mice, the pioneering rodents started sprouting patches of human hair. (The company first shared photos of Spot with the MIT Technology Review‘s look at high-tech baldness treatments; we’re the first to bring you her name).
The result is… well, perhaps not the most visually pleasing location the researchers could have chosen. If they’re not going to go for the traditional top-of-head location, why not the chest? That way, Spot could make the most of the rest of her brief two-year life by rocking a gold chain.
Thankfully, dNovo founder Ernesto Lujan assures us that Spot “seems to be enjoying her hair with no notable adverse reactions.”
Lujan’s technology is all patent pending, and the description of the procedure on the company’s website says “we can potentially generate your own personalized hair stem cells that are compatible with your immune system.” That “potentially” means the proof may be on the mouse, but it’s not an ironclad indication of the future.
“This is only the early step towards our potential cure for hair loss,” Lujan says when asked how long of a journey it is from mouse tuft to human mane. “Finding a treatment for baldness itself is a pretty daunting task.”
When considering the relative importance of that treatment, you’d be forgiven for noting how pharmaceutical and biotech companies hop right on solving very male problems, such as erectile dysfunction, while many health issues that affect women remain understudied and even taboo. But Lujan stands by his mission of applying stem cell technology to a seemingly superficial problem — one that can in fact cause a lot of internal strife, and not just for men.
“Much of the stem-cell research has focused on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” Lujan says. “All these pioneers lay the groundwork for what we are doing now. Hair loss is a very prevalent problem that affects almost one in two men, and one in seven women, above the age of 35. We believe our work will improve the lives of many people, and this is what we are focused on.”
Hats off to Spot, then, for her part in bringing baldness another hair’s breadth closer to its cure.