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Is There a New Baldness Cure?

Sufferers of the autoimmune condition alopecia may have a promising new treatment for their hair loss.

Sufferers of the autoimmune condition alopecia may have a promising new treatment for their hair loss.

A cure for baldness would be a dream come true for many people, and researchers have found that an existing, FDA-approved drug may help people with a particular type of hair loss regrow their hair.

The most common type of hair loss is male pattern baldness, which occurs when the body converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. DHT affects the hair follicles on the head, causing them to shrink, producing thinner, finer hair until the follicles stop producing hair altogether.

A different type of hair loss is called alopecia areata, and it is this type of hair loss that scientists have recently treated successfully in a small number of patients. Research is continuing apace, however into treatment methods of more common types of hair loss, like male pattern baldness.

What Is Alopecia?

The word “alopecia” means, simply, hair loss. A medical condition called alopecia areata causes hair to fall out in patches, from the scalp, or elsewhere on the body. People with alopecia areata may have different patterns of hair loss. The names of these patterns of hair loss are:

  • Alopecia areata – which is hair loss in patches
  • Alopecia totalis – which is where all hair on the scalp falls out
  • Alopecia universalis – which is when all hair on the body and scalp falls out. With alopecia, hair often grows back, but it may fall out again. How long hair loss lasts varies considerably. Alopecia isn’t contagious, and it isn’t due to mental stress. It’s caused by the immune system attacking hair follicles, and often occurs in people who are otherwise healthy, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

What Is Ruxolitinib?

Ruxolitinib is a drug that is used for treatment of a type of bone marrow cancer called myelofibrosis. The drug is what is known as a Janus kinase inhibitor, inhibiting the action of two subtypes of Janus kinases. Kinases are enzymes that transfer phosphate groups within cellular structures. Improperly regulated Janus kinase signaling is associated with myelofibrosis, and leads to altered gene expression. Ruxolitinib essentially works by blocking these enzymes, which cause scar tissue to form in bone marrow. It is a powerful drug, with side effects that include shingles, weight gain, elevated cholesterol, and opportunistic infections. But the drug has shown tremendous promise in the treatment of alopecia.

How Did Alopecia Patients Fare with Ruxolitinib?

Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center studied the use of ruxolitinib in three patients with alopecia. Each of these sufferers had lost at least one-third of the hair on their heads. After treatment with ruxolitinib, all three experienced total hair regrowth within five months.

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Interestingly, one of the members of the research team, Dr. Angela Christiano, herself suffers from alopecia. When she started her postdoctoral work, she realized that hardly any research had been done into the genes involved in alopecia. Christiano was largely responsible for mapping the genes involved in alopecia. After reversing hair loss from alopecia in mice with ruxolitinib, Christiano’s team studied the drug in three humans. After five months of treatment, which involved taking a pill twice a day, all three had full hair regrowth.

Would the Drug Work for Male Pattern Baldness?

The disease alopecia, which is an autoimmune condition, has a completely different cause than male pattern baldness, which is caused by hormonal shifts, and it is believed that ruxolitinib would not be effective in treating male pattern baldness. And despite the dramatic results achieved in the three patients with alopecia, the study of the drug for the condition has not been done on a large enough scale and for a long enough time to know whether there will be problems with side effects. It is also not know whether ruxolitinib will work on all alopecia patients. Ongoing studies indicate that it may work in the majority of people with alopecia, however.

Male pattern baldness is caused by hormonal shifts, but stem cell research could eventually lead to new treatments.

Male pattern baldness is caused by hormonal shifts, but stem cell research could eventually lead to new treatments.

Stem Cell Research and Male Pattern Baldness

Dr. George Xu, associate professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying epithelial stem cells and their role in male pattern baldness, the most common type of hair loss. Epithelial stem cells, located in a stem cell-rich area of hair follicles, are required for hair growth. Though researchers have isolated these stem cells, they have had difficulty making them multiply.

However, Xu and his research team have developed a method to amplify epithelial stem cell growth. They do this by adding three genes to human skin cells called a dermal fibroblasts. This turns them into “induced pluripotent stem cells” which can differentiate into any type of cell in the body. These, in turn, were converted into epithelial stem cells, marking the first time sizeable numbers of epithelial stem cells have been created. Xu hopes to be able to make human hair follicles in a laboratory setting within ten years.

Current Options for Men with Male Pattern Baldness

There are effective treatment options for men with male pattern baldness. Propecia is an oral drug that is taken daily to reduce the amount of testosterone converted to DHT, and it can reverse hair loss in some men. It is also sold as the generic drug finasteride. Less effective treatments for male pattern baldness include the topical drug minoxidil, which some men find more effective when used along with ketoconazole shampoo (Nizoral). Some men counter hair loss with custom hair pieces, and some embrace the bald look.

Conclusion

Though the potentially life-altering new treatment for alopecia probably won’t help those with male pattern baldness, there are treatment options for male pattern baldness, and stem cell research could add to those options in coming years. There’s every reason for men with male pattern hair loss to be optimistic that research into genetics and stem cells could eventually provide new treatments for this condition that affects millions.

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Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+