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Of Mice and Men (and Women) - Is a Cure for Hair Loss on the Horizon?

Of Mice and Men (and Women) - Is a Cure for Hair Loss on the Horizon?

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Through the centuries, attempts to conceal premature baldness have achieved what can only be described as varying degrees of success (and, let’s face it, occasional scorn). All the while, the search for a true cure has been disappointing, to say the least.

Even the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all spent considerable time, effort, and expense in their attempts to cure baldness. While fashions came and went, baldness was rarely in favor. It is said that in 4,000 B.C., Hippocrates — a man known as the Father of Medicine — prescribed a treatment for baldness that included pigeon droppings among its ingredients.

In modern times, hair transplantation and advances in toupee fitting and production have provided reliable methods of concealing baldness, but many men — and a significant number of women — will settle for nothing less than a bona fide cure. For these hair loss sufferers, a study published in the journal Nature offers some hope. While scientists remain cautiously optimistic, recent findings by Dr. George Cotsarelis and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania may point the way to the elusive cure for baldness. Dr. Cotsarelis and his team have shown that new, fully functional hair follicles can be generated in the skin of mice.

With a technique similar to that used in treating acne scars in humans, the researchers created wounds in skin samples removed from mice and then incorporated wnt proteins (which are thought to be involved in hair follicle development). What they found was entirely new hair follicles were formed by epithelial (or surface layer) skin cells.

According to Dr. Cotsarelis, scarring apparently made the skin susceptible to directions provided by the wnt proteins. In other words, the proteins told the skin to form new hair follicles, and the skin obeyed. Even more promising is the fact that these new hair follicles formed in skin cells where they had never formerly existed.
On its face, these findings seem to contradict the long-held belief that, with few exceptions, mammals are not able to regenerate tissue. Although Dr. Cotsarelis’ tests with mice suggest that this belief may have some loopholes, further testing is needed to determine whether similar results are possible in other species. If this technique can be applied to humans, it would likely allow for the creation of new hair follicles in areas typically associated with male pattern baldness.

Dr. Cotsarelis also noted that the newly formed hair did not contain pigment. This is because the skin on the backs of mice does not contain melanocytes, the cells which create melanin and provide skin, eyes, and hair with pigmentation. However, the newly formed hair follicles did have melanocytes, suggesting any similar hair follicle creation in humans would result in colored hair.

The findings at the University of Pennsylvania could lead to applications beyond the generation of new hair follicles. Some scientists are suggesting that Dr. Cotsarelis’ research could lead to new, more effective methods of reducing scar tissue. Through the use of wnt proteins, it may one day be possible for injured skin to heal while maintaining the properties of unharmed skin, theoretically resulting in little or no scarring.

In the meanwhile, Dr. Cotsarelis claims that it will be at least two to three years before a marketable cure for baldness can possibly be developed. He holds a stake in a company, Follica, Inc., that has been established with the goal of making such a cure available to the millions of people who have lived in hope that one day they might once again have a full head of natural hair. Until then, the findings of Dr. Cotsarelis and his colleagues suggest that this day may come sooner than many had previously thought.

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