The New Way To “Grow” More Hair

This treatment uses cells from your own scalp to help reverse early hair loss.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

This treatment uses cells from your own scalp to help reverse early hair loss. Here’s what you should know about who it’s for, the gain and the possible pain.

For Tricia Ong, 30-year-old social media personality and founder of local boutique Vaingloriousyou, taking care of her appearance is part of her job.

She is extra-mindful about thinning hair. “I was pulling my hair back into a bun one day when I noticed a bald spot at my hairline,” she says. She found a relatively new anti-hair loss treatment called Regenera Activa, available at some medical clinics.

Pioneered in Barcelona, Spain, the one-hour procedure works by taking regenerative cells from a healthy part of the scalp and injecting them into balding areas. As the theory goes, these cells will stimulate and strengthen weakened follicles so they produce thicker, healthier hair.

It’s approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration, the equivalent governing bodies in Europe, Korea and Japan, and Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority. Compared with hair transplant surgery, which is known to be costly, painful and have a lengthy downtime, Regenera Activa is reportedly far less traumatic.

Says Dr Justin Boey, medical director of Sozo Aesthetic Clinic: “The ‘micrografts’ are extracted from your own body. This means it is completely natural and safe, with no risk of rejection or allergy.”

Not everyone is convinced, however. Dermatologist Dr Etienne Wang, a consultant at the National Skin Centre, says that stem cell therapy for regenerative medicine (which includes regrowing hair follicles) is still a very new concept. He doubts the treatment can deliver significant results and advises that patients go in with a healthy dose of scepticism.

“Theoretically, we should be able to use patients’ own stem cells and growth factors to stimulate the growth of various tissues. However, in real life, these technologies are unproven, and we do not understand the way cells reorganise to form hair follicles in human skin,” he says, adding that as the treatments are currently unregulated and experimental, side effects are unknown.

Kick-starting weak follicles

Local anaesthetic is first injected into the back of the head. Cells are taken from this part of the scalp as it tends to have the densest hair and healthiest follicles.

A biopsy punch – a penlike device doctors use to extract tissue samples for lab testing – is used to harvest the cells, a mix of hair follicle stem cells, fat-derived regenerative cells and endothelial cells (found in the interior lining of blood vessels).

Dr Karen Soh, medical director of Prive Clinic, says: “The samples go through mechanical processing and filtration in a specialised Regenera Activa device to isolate progenitor cells, stem cells and growth factors that have regenerative abilities.”

Once prepared, these micro-grafts are planted into the balding area via manual microinjections using a very fine needle. The number varies from 20 to 60, depending on the size of the treated area and the severity of hair loss.

Dr Joshua Chong, medical director of Terra Medical Clinic, highlights that the depth of the injections is crucial to the outcome. “Regenera micro-grafts act on hair follicles, so the doctor must have an understanding of their physiology and the scalp’s anatomy to know the right depth,” he says

At SW1 Clinic, a similar procedure called Keraclone is on the table. Like Regenera Activa, it uses the patient’s healthy scalp cells to encourage weak follicles to regenerate, and involves the same steps. However, the clinic claims to have refined its techniques to minimise scarring and discomfort during cell harvesting and microinjection.

Mild thinning does it

Regenera Activa is for those in the early to middle stages of hair loss. This means women experiencing thinning hair all over the head but have no significant bald spot yet, and men starting to bald above the temples and at the crown.

Prices start from around $3,700. One session is normally sufficient; more serious cases may need two. Patients can apparently see improvements like less hair fall and thicker strands after four to five weeks. So far, reported results last three years – the length of time the treatment has been in use. Studies are ongoing.

For Ong, who did the treatment five months ago, results came fast. “I could see a difference at the two-week mark. There was more hair around the hairline,” she says.

The treatment sounds promising, but it won’t work on a completely bald pate or extremely sparse hair with a visible scalp. In those cases, the follicles are dead and a hair transplant is required.

Dr Soh says: “The Regenera method is based on the recovery of still-alive but hypofunctioning follicles. The more hair a patient has at the start of the treatment, the better the expected results.”

Others who aren’t suitable include women with postpartum hair loss (which is largely reversible) and those experiencing temporary hair loss after stress or trauma, as regrowth usually occurs within a year. It also won’t work on those with scarring alopecia, a condition whereby hair follicles are destroyed and replaced by scar tissue.

The pain and the gain “Patients can expect a slight tugging sensation during the harvesting and mild pricking during the injections,” says Dr Soh. “Those on blood thinner or certain supplements should stop the medication three days prior to the procedure.”

According to Dr Chong, an adhesive bandage is usually enough to stem the bleeding from the harvesting site as the puncture is very small. And although possible side effects include delayed healing of the extraction site, bleeding, bruising and infection, he has yet to encounter such problems. – GYH

Korean Stem Cell Hair Therapy – the botanical option

Created five years ago by a Korean dermatologist, the hour-long treatment at Follicle Singapore hair centre has the same concept as Regenera Activa but uses plant stem cells to stimulate the hair follicles and promote renewal. A serum containing the stem cells is delivered into the scalp via a microneedling device that makes numerous small punctures in the skin.

Elizabeth Leong, the centre’s general manager, says: “Hair loss will begin to stabilise in as little as three sessions. Hair regrowth can be seen from two months after.” The treatment costs $260 a session. Six to 10 sessions are recommended at weekly or fortnightly intervals.

No anaesthetic or painkillers are involved, and customers can continue with their activities straightaway, although they’re advised to avoid exercise and hair washing for the day.

Like Regenera, the treatment is for men and women with early to moderate hair loss, not those who are bald and have no live follicles. “If the candidate has had a hair transplant, this treatment would be effective in stimulating the transplanted follicles,” says Leong.

"One session is usually sufficient, and patients can expect to see less hair fall and thicker strands after four to five weeks. The treatment works best for hair loss in its early stages, when the scalp is not yet visible."