Human hair has been grown in a test tube for the first time, which could lead to a cure for baldness by the year 2000, a Cambridge University scientist says.

"This is the real thing," said Dr. Terence Kealey, leader of the research team at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry. "We have for the first time succeeded in getting hair to grow in vitro."The balding scientist stressed in a BBC radio interview that growing hairs in a test tube "is not in itself a cure for baldness," but it does provide the perfect arena for experiments.

The next step, he said, is to find out why the normal "kickback" mechanism that triggers the growth of new hair when existing hair follicles come to the end of their normal growth cycle stops working in many middle-aged men.

"I hope that within 10 years we could come up with a cure for baldness," he said.

He said the successful growth of test-tube hair came after a team member, Dr. Michael Philpott, devised a method for extracting hair follicles from the skin without damaging the hair roots.

The two top layers of skin have to be carefully sliced away before removing the follicles with fine tweezers, he said. The follicles are then grown in a synthetic blood substitute maintained at body temperature.