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Cure for hair loss? Breakthrough study may pave the way for new treatment

"We are very excited about it," a dermatologist who specializes in hair rejuvenation and was not involved in the study told TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

A single molecule may hold the key to battling male- and female-pattern hair loss, recent research suggests.

In mouse experiments, scientists showed that the molecule, dubbed SCUBE3, could spark hair growth in dormant mouse follicles, and even in human ones that had been grafted onto mice. The research was described in a study published in Developmental Cell.

Hair follicles in people who are bald still have the machinery to sprout new strands, study co-author Maksim Plikus, Ph.D., professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, told TODAY.

All follicles have stem cells at their base that work together to produce strands of hair, Plikus said. In people who are bald or have thinning hair, some of those stem cells don’t seem to be working, he added.

“When it comes to growing hairs, follicle stem cells need to become activated,” Plikus said. “Once activated, they divide into daughter cells that mature and come together to form a strand.”

“Most people when they lose their hair wonder if the follicles are gone,” Plikus said. “They are there, but they are dormant. The reason they are inactive is that they are not hearing signaling molecules.”

That's where SCUBE3 comes in: The molecule carries the message that tells the follicles to activate. Plikus and his colleagues showed in their experiments that when mice were given microinjections of SCUBE3, their hair grew in thick. Even human follicles that were transplanted into the mouse skin turned on when exposed to SCUBE3. The findings suggest that, in people with thinning hair, there isn’t enough SCUBE3 present.

Plikus compares a head covered with dormant follicles to a huge factory filled with 3D printers that are idling and ready to print, but are waiting for someone to push their start buttons.

It’s likely, Plikus said, that it would take very small amounts of SCUBE3 to activate dormant human hair follicles. Moreover, he suspects that treatments would need to be given only two or three times a year.

While the research on SCUBE3 is promising, getting from mouse experiments to a human treatment for baldness isn’t guaranteed, and even if SCUBE3 turns out to grow hair in people, it takes a long time to take a treatment through all of the clinical trials needed to get Food and Drug Administration approval, Plikus said.

“Right now, we are very excited about it,” Dr. Brian Abittan, director of skin and hair rejuvenation at the Mount Sinai Health System, told TODAY. “With this SCUBE3 molecule, we’re hoping to have a more precise understanding of the signaling that controls hair growth. It would be great to have another pathway to treatments.”

But, Abittan said, this is still in the preclinical stage of development.

There is still a long way to go before this could become a baldness treatment, Rui Yi, Ph.D., professor of pathology and dermatology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told TODAY. “There is a big difference between a human and a mouse. Mice have short hair that grows just long enough to cover their bodies.”

Before doing a clinical trial, the researchers probably will need to do more safety testing, Yi said.