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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 00:42 GMT 01:42 UK
New skin from old hair
Girl's hair
Hair follicles plucked from anywhere on the body can used to create skin grafts
Scientists can now grow skin from hair follicles - cutting out the need for painful skin grafts.

Researchers from the Swiss biotechnology company Modex Therapeutics, based in Lausanne, said they can use the stem cells found in hair follicles to grow new skin.

They are hopeful this technique, called Epidex, could soon mean an end to the painful process of taking skin from other parts of the body for grafts.

New skin like this is important in plastic surgery, particularly for burns victims, who can be left with disfiguring scars without the new skin.

We're changing patients hair to patients' skin.

Dr Edward Baetge

Creating skin

Dr Edward Baetge, the chief scientific officer for Modex, said the technique could use hairs taken from anywhere on the body.

Doctors send between 20-30 hairs to Modex by post and then they return the skin about a month later.

Dr Baetge said: "We're changing patients hair to patients' skin.

"Doctors can pluck hairs from any points in the body."

The stem cells are put onto trays which are then placed above a layer of completely unrelated human skin cells.

These then secrete growth factors that transform the stem cells into basic skin cells called primary keratinocytes.

The cells are then exposed to the air and this turns it into proper skin, with a horny layer on top.

If the patients are too sick to get their treatment immediately doctors can freeze the keratinocytes until they are ready.

Initial results

Modex has just released the preliminary results of a trial on 80 patients with diabetic skin ulcers at 12 clinics in Germany and Switzerland and they say that for the first 36 to be treated the technique worked at least as well as the more traditional split skin mesh grafting.

Although the technique has currently only been used on fairly small ulcers Modex is hoping to treat larger wounds.

Dr Tania Phillips, a dermatologist at Boston University School of Medicine said this was an important break through.

"It's a great development because to get cultured keratinocyte grafts from individual patients, you must take at least one centimetre of skin.

"With the hair cells, it sounds like you can provide skin coverage without hurting the patient."

The research is published in New Scientist.

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