Denise Jones quit her job because she was losing her hair. Diagnosed with the autoimmune disease alopecia areata, she saw her hair falling out in patches, bald spots dotting her scalp. The snarky comments and backhanded compliments had already started at her workplace, and she wasn’t sure how much more she could take. So she left.
According to her physician, Luis Garza, a professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, Denise (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) is far from alone in experiencing stress and anxiety over hair loss. Hair, he explains, is a fundamental aspect of identity, deeply intertwined with our body image and sense of self. That’s why baldness can, quite literally, change a person’s life.
Yet despite more than 50 percent of women and 85 percent of men in the US experiencing balding during their lives, there still aren’t effective treatments for hair loss. “None of them work really well,” Garza says. For common baldness, the two drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—finasteride and minoxidil—promote hair growth only slightly, must be used daily, and can cause side effects like depression and decreased libido. Another popular option is hair transplantation, where hair follicles are moved from one part of the scalp to another. But the procedure is invasive, expensive (costing $4,000 to $15,000 out of pocket in the US), and limited by how much hair can be moved. Given these lackluster options, most people can’t do anything meaningful about their hair loss.
But that may soon change. In a study published in Developmental Cell last month, Maksim Plikus, professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, and chief scientific officer of hair biotech company Amplifica, uncovered the role of a potent signaling molecule called SCUBE3. This protein might reshape how physicians approach baldness.
With its roughly half a million hair follicles, you can think of your scalp as a gigafactory of 3D printers. According to Plikus, nearly all these follicles need to be constantly “printing” in order to create a full mop of hair. But in common baldness, these printers start shutting down, leading to hair thinning (if roughly 50 percent have switched off) and balding (when more than 70 percent are off). By activating stem cells present in people’s scalps, SCUBE3 hacks hair follicles to restart the production line and promote rapid growth.
Plikus’ research began because he wanted to better understand dermal papilla cells, which are located at the bottom of hair follicles. It’s notoriously difficult to experiment with them, so to learn more about how they work, his team used a genetic tool to target a signaling pathway (a series of molecular reactions that involve certain proteins) that these cells use to drive hair growth. The goal was to get this pathway, in a set of hairless mice, to stay always switched on. Once he and his team got the tool to work, the genetically modified mice started rapidly growing hair.