The near-future of hair loss treatment seems to be quite promising. Recent research in mice points to a potentially new way of restoring hair, while other approaches are set to undergo clinical trials in humans soon.
An experimental treatment developed by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, highlighted in a recent Wired article by writer Simar Bajaj, uses a protein molecule known as SCUBE3. The team’s work has suggested that SCUBE3 plays a vital role in how certain cells found at the bottom of our hair follicles known as dermal papilla induce hair growth. They’ve also shown that injecting SCUBE3 into the skin of mice can produce new hair, including on mice with grafted human hair follicles. Their latest research was published in July in the journal Developmental Cell.
It’s possible, the scientists argue, that SCUBE3 could be packaged into microbeads that are injected into people’s balding scalps via a relatively painless and short procedure. The treatment would be similar to how Botox is now used for treating wrinkles but likely less expensive than hair grafts, which can cost thousands per session and rely on a finite number of existing hair follicles to be available somewhere else on the scalp. “You have a patient sitting in a dentist-like chair, they close their eyes, and then you go tch, tch, tch, tch,” study author Maksim Plikus, professor of developmental and cell biology and chief scientific officer of hair biotech company Amplifica, told Wired.
Of course, many experimental drugs have shown promise in animal studies only to fail later in human trials, so the jury is still out on whether SCUBE3 will turn out to be anything valuable. But there are other hair loss treatments further along in development.
This spring, the Food and Drug Administration approved an existing arthritis drug called baricitinib as the first drug of its kind to treat alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that can cause complete baldness along the body and scalp. Baricitinib and other similar drugs that are likely on the way can suppress the specific parts of the immune system that attack hair follicles in people with the condition, which can lead to the dramatic restoration of their hair.
Even older hair loss drugs may get a new day in the sun. In recent years, doctors have started to prescribe very low doses of minoxidil, the active ingredient in Rogaine, in pill form to hair loss patients. While the research into this method is still ongoing, oral minoxidil so far appears to be just as safe and (modestly) effective as topical minoxidil can be, but could be more convenient and easier to adhere to for many patients.
As noted by Wired, Turn Biotechnologies is hoping to use mRNA technology—the underlying basis of the covid-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech—to rejuvenate dormant stem cells within hair follicles. The company is expecting human trials to begin by late 2023 or early 2024. Two other companies, RepliCel and HairClone, are planning to harvest, grow, and then transplant hair cells from a healthy area of a person’s scalp to one where hair is balding, and RepiCel has already begun human trials in Japan.
Any way you look at it, it seems like the future’s looking good for those of us worried about balding as we get older.