Growth media, baldness and…foreskin?

It might seem a more than gruesome recipe for many. More if we think that these were the ingredients of the headline for an article published in the Medical Daily to report on the findings of recent work appeared in the journal PNAS. As it usually happens, there was a lot of the two first -not so attention seeking- ingredients and very little of the third in the paper.

What happens very often with science reporting is that achieving a high impact headline usually takes away the fidelity to the science. And that is simply unacceptable.

Structure of a hair follicle

Let’s have a look at the actual science behind this flashy headline. The researchers managed to develop a new method to grow new hair in vitro. Basically, that’s all. But it is really important, since it offers hope to those people who cannot afford hair transplantation, like those with big burns. Isn’t that already interesting enough? Funnily enough when most times journalists don’t read beyond the abstract, in this case they had to read up to the second page of the results to find their Holy Grial, the foreskin was hidden there. And contrary to what the headline of that article seems to suggest, namely that the foreskin aids new hair growth, the reason the scientists used it is simply that that type of skin doesn’t grow naturaly hair and for that reason once the epitelium had changed fates after the transplantation of the dermal papilla cells (cells at the bottom of the hair follicles), the effects would be much easier to spot. Full stop. It’s not that we need all the circumcised foreskins of babies around the world to provide hair to Silvio Berlusconi et al., it is more that this skin proved to be the best substrate for the experiment.

In summary, the highlight of this paper is that a change in culture conditions -from bidimensional growth to 3D- achieves the efficient reprogramming of the skin in which the dermal papillae are introduced to a tissue with active hair follicles, a hairy skin, that is. Therefore providing hope -in the long run- to people with certain kinds of baldness.

It is a real shame that scientific journalism so often takes sensationalism for news, confusing people in the way, creating false expectations and allowing for the blooming of the despicable pseudosciences, which lately seem to sprout everywhere…