The Search for a Baldness Cure

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Fresh clues to what makes hair follicles go dormant are pointing toward potential cures for baldness.

Several research teams are working to figure out ways to spur existing follicles—the tiny organs in the skin that give birth to hair—back into action, or to make new, active follicles. New treatments based on this work likely are many years from the market, but these approaches could lead to the significant breakthrough of helping people who are already bald. By contrast, topical products available now, such as Rogaine, appear to be most effective in helping prevent further balding after it has started. And with current surgical procedures, healthy hairs can be moved into bald areas, but the operation has to be continually repeated.

Crucial to the hair-growth and balding process, scientists have found, are vitamin D and the microscopic receptors that bind to it in skin. These elements have become the focus for several research teams. (Supplements might offer health benefits for people lacking enough vitamin D, but they won’t bring back lost hair, researchers say.)

Some researchers, including those from the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, have identified molecules besides vitamin D that appear to activate the receptor and hold potential for future treatments. In July, Japanese researchers demonstrated in animals that adding vitamin D helped the process of using stem cells to generate new follicles.

Vitamin D has long been known to be important for keeping bones and skin healthy. But research on its role in bone development has progressed much faster than has the research on skin and hair.

The vitamin D receptor is “crucial for the regeneration of hair,” wrote Mark Haussler, a professor in physiology, chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University in Phoenix, in a recent paper. He discovered the receptor in 1969.

Hair growth follows a cycle, with follicles typically producing hair for two to six years before the hair falls out and the follicle lies dormant for a period thought to vary from a few weeks to a few months. A replacement hair then emerges. At any point in time, some 15% of our follicles are sleeping, say researchers.

But for some people, this sleeping phase is permanent, and if enough follicles hibernate in the same skin area, baldness results. The message to grow hair appears to be guided by partner cells called dermal papilla cells. Stem cells in the skin that haven’t matured yet can become regular skin cells or differentiate into hair follicles. Without the right chemical communication, existing follicles go dormant and stem cells that have yet to differentiate themselves may become skin cells instead of follicles.

Many scientists and several companies have tried to expand the number of follicles and normal dermal papilla cells while maintaining their functioning, but have failed.

The demand for better hair-loss treatments is great. Nearly $2 billion a year is spent world-wide in surgical procedures for hair loss, according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery. One of the most common forms of baldness, called androgenetic alopecia—widely known as male-pattern baldness—affects 35 million men in the U.S., according to government data, and is related to the amount of certain hormones in the body. Estimates suggest 20 million to 30 million women also have alopecia, but they generally don’t lose hair in a pattern like men do.

Chemotherapy-induced hair loss in cancer patients is also common, and in some cases, the follicles may die. Several other factors such as childbirth, crash diets and some medications can also lead to hair loss, though the exact reasons why follicles are lulled to sleep isn’t well understood.

Current treatment options include topical products, such as Rogaine and Propecia, which work best for prevention, says Rashid Rashid, a dermatologist at the Mosaic Hair Transplant Center in Houston. Hair transplants—when hairs are moved from one area of the scalp to a bald area—are the other main option. This can be done more quickly than ever now, says Dr. Rashid, but the new hairs don’t regenerate and fall out after a couple of months.

Original article here: http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443921504577643442954317340.html