Restoring the hair lost due to hereditary factors is the dream of many hair loss sufferers. Until not too long ago, the only effective and authentic-looking methods of reversing hair loss were non-surgical cover-ups. It was only with the advent of follicular unit transplantation and the discovery of the true cause of baldness - the harmful effects of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) on our hair follicles - that the hair-loss sufferer's chances of reversing hair loss naturally have greatly improved.
The three best weapons in the fight against baldness today are the two FDA-approved medicinal drugs - finasteride (Propecia) and minoxidil (Rogaine) and hair surgery, the follicular unit transplantation and, especially, the follicular unit extraction technique. However, no ultimate cure exists yet as each of the three aforementioned hair restoration methods has its limitations. Minoxidil and finasteride work well only in the vertex area of the scalp, and finasteride cannot be used by women. Hair transplant surgery is suitable only for people who have sufficient hair density in the donor area, and many women, who typically suffer from diffuse thinning, do not make good candidates for hair transplantation.
Therefore, scientists around the world are relentlessly searching for new approaches to treating hair loss. There are presently several promising medications and new techniques under development listed below but progress seems to have slowed down a bit due to the global financial crisis, as some projects are finding it increasingly difficult to raise financing to further their research.
The greatest progress has been achieved on dutasteride. Dutasteride is an antiandrogen, in its chemical structure and mode of action it is similar to finasteride. It is used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia and since it is a dual 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, it should be a more potent DHT blocker than finasteride. Therefore, it is thought to be more effective in treating hair loss, especially in the frontal area of the scalp. Dutasteride completed Phase III clinical testing this year and the study results are expected to be published soon.
NEOSH101 was originally developed by the US medical research firm Neosil and was until recently undergoing phase IIb clinical testing. At the end of 2008, Neosil was taken over by Peplin, Inc., a development stage specialty pharmaceuticals company and since then no information on the further progress of the clinical trials has been released. In previous clinical trials, NEOSH101 was shown to be a more powerful and faster-acting, hair growth stimulant than minoxidil and it only needs applying once daily. Though significantly improving the current hair-loss treatment options, NEOSH101 is not going to become the ultimate cure for baldness. The clinical trials seem to be advancing slower than most hair-loss sufferers would like and, hence, do not hold your breath waiting for it to hit the market anytime soon.
Another promising area of development is the telomerase research. Telomerase is an enzyme that is able to put natural caps on telomeres and thus protect them from shortening. Telomerase thereby maintains the genomic integrity. Shortened telomeres are associated with premature aging processes. However, the uncontrolled activation of telomerase can cause cancer. Cancer research is the main focus of the telomerase studies but scientists are also looking for other applications, such as anti-aging drugs and drugs against baldness and premature grey hair. Telomerase research could really change the world of medicine but its commercial application might be a good 15 years away.
Hair multiplication, often called hair regeneration or hair cloning, is the next hopeful treatment option being developed. This technique involves extracting hair follicles from the back of the patient's scalp, culturing and multiplying them and injecting the newly-grown hair cells into the bald scalp area. The UK healthcare firm Intercytex appears to be the frontrunner in hair multiplication research. Intercytex has already completed phase II clinical study of ICX-TRC (a suspension of a patient's own dermal papilla cells). The main benefit of hair multiplication would be solving the shortage of donor hair that is the main limiting factor in hair transplant surgery. However, Intercytex is currently facing financial difficulties and after failing to find an investor, it will have to continue operating on its own. Aderans, the main competitor of Intercytex, has also recently launched a Phase II clinical study on cell-based hair regeneration for men and women.
Generating new hair follicles in hair-free skin wounds is an entirely new approach to regrowing hair. It was discovered accidentally when wounded skin in mice started producing new hair. This technology is currently being developed by the US medical device company, Follica, which has licensed this technology from the University of Pennsylvania. Though this method may sound a bit weird, it is said to only use common instruments and drugs that have already been medically approved and thus it might not take too long for it to become commercially available.
This list of the undergoing R&D projects in the field of hair-loss research includes the most promising lines of development but it is not exhaustive. However, none of the new therapies, with the exception of dutasteride's approval for treating hair loss, is expected to hit the market before 2013 and the immediate future of hair restoration lies in improving the surgical techniques, increasing the yields of the follicular unit extraction method and making it more affordable to a larger portion of the population. For more information on novel as well as existing treatments for hair loss and grey hair please visit the author's website dedicated to educating the public on treating genetically-determined hair conditions.
By Dody Gasparik M.Sc.
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