Hats off to science – a gene cure for baldness is nigh

The Sunday Times 19 August 2012 Lois Rogers

SCIENTISTS believe they have unlocked the secret of baldness after discovering an enzyme that tells hair follicles to switch off.

Drugs to block the effects of the enzyme, called prostaglandin D2 (PGD2), are already available because it is also implicated in asthma and other allergic conditions. As a result, a new hair regrowth product could be on the market within a few years.

George Cotsarelis, head of dermatology at Pennsylvania University, where he leads the world’s most advanced team of hair experts, announced last week that he is in talks with several pharmaceutical companies that are capable of producing such a treatment.

Cotsarelis recently discovered how to manufacture new hair follicles, reversing a genetic programme that sets the total number of hair follicles at birth.

The discovery was announced in the journal Science Translational Medicine. It will offer a faster method of hair regeneration if the follicles can be protected from the damaging effect of PGD2 by a hair lotion that would not disturb other important functions of the enzyme, including the regulation of the body clock and pain response.

Cotsarelis’s breakthrough involved studying active genes in scalp samples taken from men. Analysis revealed that the gene producing PGD2 played a principal role in causing hair loss.

“We looked at 250 genes that play a part in hair loss and this [the receptor for PGD2] was the one with the major role,” Cotsarelis said.

PGD2 works by binding with a receptor on hair follicle cells that inhibit growth. Adapting a drug that blocks its effect could provide the ultimate treatment for baldness.

The research has been carried out only in men but Cotsarelis believes the same mechanism causes hair loss in women.

About 50% of men have begun to go bald by the age of 50. About 40% of women suffer hair loss associated with the menopause.

Only two treatments have come on to the market to treat hair loss, with neither living up to its early hype. Propecia was launched in 1997. It blocks the effect of testosterone, implicated in causing baldness, but it can cause impotence. Amexidil works by increasing blood flow to the hair follicles. In some men it can accelerate hair loss.

Des Tobin, director of Bradford University’s centre for skin sciences, said: “This is a big step forward. More work is needed but we can now intervene in so many other physiological events, I can’t see why we won’t soon be able to intervene to prevent hair loss.”