Boffins in California who were trying to deal with problems of stress in combat veterans say they may have accidentally found a cure for baldness. For now, the miracle drug is known to work only on experimental mice genetically engineered to go bald early, but there is apparently every prospect it will benefit humans too.
"Our findings show that a short-duration treatment with this compound causes an astounding long-term hair regrowth in chronically stressed mutant mice," says Million Mulugeta, UCLA prof. "This could open new venues to treat hair loss in humans through the modulation of the stress hormone receptors, particularly hair loss related to chronic stress and aging."
Mulugeta and colleagues of his working both for UCLA and the US Veterans' Administration (VA) were actually looking into ways of tackling gut problems related to stress, which would obviously be of interest to the VA – in charge as it is of looking after America's legions of stressed-out war veterans.
One stress-related hormone the boffins were interested in blocking is called corticotrophin-releasing factor, or CRF. They thought that it might be possible to tackle the effects of CRF by administering doses of a peptide called astressin-B.
The simplest way to check this out was to produce a load of mutant lab mice, specially modified to produce large amounts of CRF. These genetically stressed-up mice lose all the hair on their backs as they age, but the scientists weren't, initially, particularly interested in that: they wanted to see how doses of astressin-B would affect the mice's digestion.
Following some initial experiments, the bald mice were popped back into a lab pen with some unmodified hairy ones and left for three months. Then the scientists returned for some followup work, expecting to easily separate their stressed mice by looking for hairless backs.
Imagine the boffins' surprise, then, when it turned out that all their bald mice had grown hair again and could not be told apart from the others any longer.
"When we analyzed the identification number of the mice that had grown hair we found that, indeed, the astressin-B peptide was responsible for the remarkable hair growth in the bald mice," says Mulugeta. "Subsequent studies confirmed this unequivocally."
Apparently just a single daily shot of astressin-B for for five days maintains hair on a genetically-stress-bald mouse for up to four months – nearly a quarter of the mouse's lifespan. If the same kind of effects are seen in humans, a course of anti-baldening pills or injections might maintain a luxuriant uptop rug for 15 or 20 years – at any rate where baldness results from the action of CRF-style stress related hormones. Encouragingly, CRF and associated compounds are found in human skin.
Potentially good news down the road, then, for those humans who are bald and bothered by it: though as ever the fruits of medical research seem unlikely to come cheap. Patents on the use of astressin-B for hair growth have already been applied for by UCLA and the Salk Institute, both involved in the research.
Those wanting more detail may care to check out the scientific paper on the research, just published in the journal PLoS One. ®