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David Ewing Duncan

A View from David Ewing Duncan

Men, Are You Tired of Being Bald?

A breakthrough process at the University of Pennsylvania reactivates moribund cells in the skin to restore a thick head of hair–and it may cure acne, too.

  • May 21, 2007

Call before midnight tonight and have a full head of hair, guaranteed!

Okay, there is no number to call and no guarantee–yet. But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have gotten us one step closer to relegating baldness to a thing of the past.

The university’s reverse-balding process reactivates the genes, which usually function only in embryos, that stimulate skin cells to grow hair follicles. The team, led by George Cotsarelis, discovered during experiments with mice that when a mouse is wounded, its damaged skin can be induced not just to avoid forming scar tissue, but also to regenerate skin, complete with hair follicles and oil glands. The scientists tweaked the skin using wnt proteins long known to be involved in hair-follicle production.

“We have found that we can influence wound healing with ‘wnts’ or other proteins that allow the skin to heal in a way that has less scarring and includes all the normal structures of the skin, such as hair follicles and oil glands, rather than just a scar,” Cotsarelis told the Independent, in the United Kingdom.

According to the article,

By introducing more wnt proteins to the wound, the researchers were able to double the number of new hair follicles. The research has implications that go beyond finding a cure for male-pattern baldness. It raises the possibility of treatments for acne, scalp conditions and hair overgrowth.

Since the early 1990s, scientists have known that skin can be stimulated to multiply hair follicles, but until now the process has worked only in a test tube. This has led to a competition to come up with the Holy Grail of hair: a molecular trigger to make this process happen in a living mammal.

Cotsarelis has cofounded a company, aptly named Follica, to develop the technology. It may take a while, but there could come a time when the famously bald will be bald no more. The list includes Jason Alexander, Yul Brynner, Kelsey Grammer, Andre Agassi, and Moby, just to name a few. Another famed baldy is comedian Larry David, who once said,

“Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man–there’s your diamond in the rough.”

Would David be as funny if he had a mop top? Would he be as confident if he had not had to overcome a shiny pate? Would his wife, Laurie, find him more or less attractive?

We may soon find out.

The bald facts (as listed by the Independent):

* More than 30 percent of men face balding before old age.

* Of the 100,000 strands of hair on the average head, at least 10,000 are in the process of dying.

* It takes up to six months for a follicle to produce a new hair.

* Male-pattern baldness is the most common: hair recedes from the temples, forehead, and crown. An excess of testosterone in the body is thought to be the cause.

* Effects of hair loss can be minimized by using hair thickeners to add body to remaining hair.

* Some specialists recommend massaging and stretching the skin of the scalp to promote blood flow to the follicles.

* Drugs used to treat baldness include Rogaine and Propecia. Both require a prescription and neither is available free on the NHS.

* Hair transplants are the most expensive solution, costing about $13,500 (£10,000).


Nature citation:

Mayumi Ito et al., “Wnt-dependent de novo hair follicle regeneration in adult mouse skin after wounding,” Nature 447, 316-320 (17 May 2007) Lett

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