Raising hair

Yes, a protein can help make unhappy bald people happier

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

 Hair was here: new research g (Credit: kazimuddin ahmed / cse)in his last book of the legendary Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey , technoprophet Arthur C Clarke presents several interesting scenarios of the future. These include cities extending heavenwards in delicate pinnacle-shaped structures, a female Pope and, of course, the usual paeans to virtual reality and smart computers. He also talks of an intelligent computer network that human beings can 'plug' into. However, the price of this 'intelligence' is baldness: those opting for it have to shave their heads, as the network uses a cranium-shaped plate that all users must wear. And unlike the humans today, these people do not lament losing their hair. But that is the future. Right now, thousands across the planet are worriedly checking their hairlines, praying that they still retain whatever little of it is left.

Well, they are not the only people who are worried about hair. Elaine Fuchs and her team at the University of Chicago, usa , are also worried. Fuchs is one of the few scientists seeking solutions for premature hair loss. And now, they think they might have the answer. For the first time, they have 'persuaded' adult mice to grow new hair follicles and they say this could lead to alternative treatments for hair loss ( Cell , Vol 95, No 5).

The adult human body has some five million hair strands, of which about 100,000 to 150,000 are on the scalp. Below the skin is the hair root which is surrounded by a sack-like structure called the hair follicle. At the base of the follicle is the papilla, the 'hair manufacturing plant' of sorts. It is fed by the blood-stream which carries nourishment to produce new hair.

Hair growth is regulated by male hormones or androgens. Unlike hair in other parts of the body, scalp hair is not directly androgen-responsive, but influenced by local amounts of a derivative of the male hormone testosterone called dihydrotestosterone. Hair follicles initially are formed in the embryonic stage. No new follicles are created after birth, and none are lost in adult life.

Scalp hair fibres grow from follicles which occupy the human scalp. However, not all the follicles are productive. In each producing follicle, the duration of the hair's life cycle is influenced by age, pathology and a wide variety of other physiological factors. New hair strands are created when the follicles draw on stores of undifferentiated cells and baldness occurs when these are exhausted.

Regrowth of hair on a balding pate is a multi-billion dollar business. Experts, from scientists to quacks, have been trying to make it a reality with varying degrees of success. Hormonal creams that stimulate the dormant hair follicles to produce new hair are available. Doctors and beauticians also carry out follicle transplants. But these treatments have had limited success and no one has been able to generate new follicles in an adult.

A few years ago, Fuchs and her team discovered that embryonic cells destined to become follicles produce a protein called Lef-1. They also learnt that Lef-1 had a protein partner called beta catenin that stimulates follicle development when it accumulates in the adult cells. They wondered whether a constant surplus of beta catenin might stimulate growth of new follicles. To test this theory, they created transgenetic or genetically-engineered mice that produce a truncated form of beta catenin which lingers in the cells for a longer period of time.

To the researchers' delight, the transgenetic mice kept growing new hair follicles even after they reached adulthood. But there was a serious hitch. In addition to follicles, the scientists observed that the mice also developed follicle tumours, because of uncontrolled growth. These, however, were not malignant. Another good sign: hair was growing in all directions.

The glitches notwithstanding, this is the first time anyone has managed to create new hair follicles in adult cells. Fuchs believes that short-term treatment with a cream or a drug could make new hair follicles form in humans, leading to new hair growth. She has already patented the discovery and is trying hard to develop what unhappy owners of receding hairlines have been waiting for: a drug for hair growth.

George Consarelis, director of the Hair and Scalp Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, usa , who has been studying hair follicles and stem cells for years, says, "It is really an outstanding paper. It shows that beta catenin is one of the earliest steps in hair follicle formation." What he doubts is whether beta catenin alone will be able to help in treating baldness, especially since in the transgenetic mice the chemical was available since birth while lot of bald people will be well into their middle ages when they start using the hair-raising formula.

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