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Scientists across the world are hunting for a permanent cure for baldness. Innovative research continues to be published year after year, but there is little sign that a ground-breaking treatment is near to being rolled out.
Studies into genetics, stem cells, and new drugs attempt to understand more about our hair follicles and hair growth cycles, and how our scalps might be coaxed back into life.
Until a permanent (and accessible) cure for baldness is introduced, several safe and effective treatments for hair loss are already available.
Is a Permanent Hair Loss Cure Possible?
Whether it’s a receding hairline, noticeable bald patches, or a thinning head of hair you’re struggling to cover with a trendy new hairstyle, you might be experiencing one of the many different types of hair loss.
In fact, some level of male pattern baldness (MPB) is inevitable for most men as they get older. MPB is caused by a complex combination of genetic, hormonal, and age-related factors, and scientists still have a long way to go before they fully understand the mechanisms behind hair growth and hair loss.
Researchers in this field have made progress in recent years, with new drugs, stem cell experimentation, effective hair transplants, and a deeper knowledge of genetics all suggesting that a permanent cure for baldness could be on the horizon. However, as hair loss is still considered more of a cosmetic issue, scientists sometimes struggle to obtain funding for their work.
In this article, we’ve compiled a survey of recent research into hair loss, along with a summary of the licensed hair loss treatment options that are currently available.
What Role Do Genes Play in Male Pattern Baldness?
Your genes play a key role in whether or not you will develop MPB. It seems that certain genes lead to your hair follicles being more sensitive to damage from hormonal changes, but scientists are working to understand which genes are responsible and why.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh managed to identify “over 250 independent genetic loci associated with severe hair loss”. They then used their findings to develop an algorithm that allowed them to predict a person’s likelihood of baldness based on their genes. This innovation has the potential to identify those most at risk of hair loss early, in order to make a more effective intervention.
Can Stem Cells Cure Baldness?
One promising area of research into a cure for baldness is stem cells. These are a type of cell that has the ability to transform into other kinds of cell in your body, in order to repair damage to tissue.
A research group in Japan is aiming to develop a hair follicle regeneration technology. Their method involves cultivating stem cells around hair follicles to make them increase in size, thus reversing the miniaturisation of hair follicles that leads to MPB.
In addition, scientists from UC San Francisco discovered that regulatory T cells (Tregs), a type of immune cell that is linked to controlling inflammation, have a close relationship with the stem cells in hair follicles. If the Tregs aren’t working properly then that can disrupt the growth cycle and prevent the growth of new hairs. The study was focused on hair loss due to alopecia areata, but it’s thought the findings could have implications for MPB treatment too.
Meanwhile, a Californian research programme has been successful in growing hair on mice using human induced pluripotent stem cells. These are adult cells that are genetically reprogrammed to act like cells found in a developing foetus. The head researcher, Alexey Terskikh, has founded a company that hopes to license the technology for commercial use.
What About Hair Transplantation?
A hair transplant (sometimes referred to as “hair restoration”) is a procedure whereby your own hair follicles are relocated to other areas of your scalp using a technique called micrografting.
While the results of a hair transplant are long-lasting, there’s no guarantee that your first procedure will be your last. It’s also a time-consuming process which involves a lot of healing and recovery (around 6-12 months).
If the transplant is successful, the relocated hair follicles will encourage hair growth to fill out the bald patches on your scalp. But, like the follicles that were already in place, the transplanted ones have a lifespan, and will eventually stop producing as much hair as they once did.
New Hair Loss Drugs
There is also the potential to develop further pharmacological treatments for hair loss, which could even include a permanent cure for baldness.
Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center in New York have found that a group of drugs called JAK inhibitors can help increase hair growth and encourage hair regrowth. These drugs tackle the activity of a family of enzymes called Janus kinase (JAK), which are found in the hair follicles. By inhibiting the JAK enzymes, the drugs seem to promote the hair follicle’s re-entry into the anagen growth phase of the human hair cycle.
Also, scientists at the University of Manchester have experimented with an immunosuppressive drug called cyclosporine A, which reduces the activity of the protein SFRP1 – a growth regulator that affects hair follicles.
Although cyclosporine A is not appropriate as a hair loss treatment, because it suppresses the immune system, the scientists found that another drug, WAY-316606 did an even better job at stopping SFRP1. Several pharmaceutical companies have since expressed interest in developing WAY-316606 as a treatment for baldness, although this is awaiting FDA approval.
Current Treatments for Male Pattern Baldness
In the UK, there are currently two treatments that are medically approved to tackle male pattern baldness. They are not available on the NHS but are easy to order online from a licensed pharmacy.
Oral Finasteride is a tablet that’s taken once per day. It works by blocking the activity of the enzyme 5-alpha reductase, which converts testosterone to the hormone Dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is responsible for the miniaturisation of your hair follicles, meaning that they shrink and no longer produce healthy hair. So by blocking the production of DHT in your hair follicles, Finasteride (brand name “Propecia) helps the follicles to recover and grow stronger hairs.
Topical Minoxidil comes as a liquid, spray, or foam that’s applied directly to the scalp. Minoxidil (brand name “Rogaine”) is a vasodilator, which means that it expands the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow to your hair follicles. This helps to revitalise damaged follicles as they receive more oxygen and nutrients from your blood, with minimal side effects.
These two treatments work to reduce or even reverse hair loss in the majority of men. Finasteride has been proven effective for 9 out of 10 men and Minoxidil for 6 out of 10 men. Used together, therefore, they work for over 90% of men.
Finasteride & Minoxidil
This powerful combo promotes hair growth by blocking DHT – a hormone linked to hair loss – and by increasing blood flow around your follicles.
Scientists continue to make new discoveries about how our hair follicles and hair growth cycles work. A permanent cure for baldness, perhaps using stem cell technology, could indeed be out there – but it seems unlikely that it will appear soon. In addition, any innovative new treatment will no doubt command a high price.
While we wait for the experts to strike gold, the availability of effective, affordable treatments like Finasteride and Minoxidil means that hair loss from male pattern baldness can still be addressed in the here and now.