Do hair follicles operate as primitive, multifocal kidney-like excretory (mini-) organs?

Jean Luc Carré, Takahiro Suzuki, Ralf Paus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Besides their many other functions, hair shafts (HS) also are a repository for potentially noxious compounds. These are neutralized by their deposition within terminally differentiated, avital epithelial cells (trichocytes) that also facilitate the interaction of potential toxins with melanin, a toxin-adsorbent biopolymer. Trichocytes are completely extruded via HS shedding during exogen, an actively controlled process. This underappreciated functional property of the human hair follicle (HF) makes it a bona fide excretory (mini-) organ. Here, we ask whether the ca. 2 million HFs of the human integument operate in part as primitive, spatially dispersed kidney-like excretory organs. Despite the many obvious differences between kidneys and HFs, this provocative hypothesis is also supported by other underappreciated renal-follicular similarities such as anatomical parallels between Bowman's capsule and the anagen hair bulb, renal podocytes and HF winged cells ["Fuegelzellen"], and hypoxia-dependent production of erythropoietin and extensive prostaglandin synthesis by human scalp HFs—just as in the kidney. The proposed kidney-like excretory function of HFs may have constituted a major selection advantage of mammals during evolution and could be clinically relevant. We explain how the many open questions (eg, how are molecules destined to be excreted by hair shaft entrapment recognized, taken up and deposited into hair matrix cells?) can be tested experimentally. Finally, we explore how the therapeutic targeting of kidney-like excretory HF functions may usefully complement classical nephrological therapy (dialysis) and ask whether stimulation of intrafollicular erythropoietin synthesis might become exploitable for the benefit of patients with renal anaemia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)357-365
Number of pages9
JournalExperimental Dermatology
Issue number3
Early online date28 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • Bowman's capsule
  • erythropoietin
  • exogen
  • hair follicle
  • melanin
  • podocyte
  • trichocyte
  • winged cells


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