Cure for baldness? Unlikely drug discovery shows amazing promise

10 May 2018

Image: docent/Shutterstock

A drug originally developed for the treatment of osteoporosis has inadvertently shown itself to be a miracle worker when it comes to hair growth.

Hair loss can be quite traumatic for a person, be it because of the realities of ageing, or the result of a life-changing condition.

For these reasons, some seek hair growth treatments as a means of returning their once flowing locks. The drugs minoxidil and finasteride, in particular, are used specifically for the treatment of male pattern baldness.

Future Human

However, an unlikely discovery detailed in the journal PLOS Biology by a team from the University of Manchester appears to show a drug that has a dramatic effect on human hair follicles donated by patients undergoing hair transplantation surgery, despite being developed for the treatment of osteoporosis.

What is CsA?

The pre-existing drugs used for treating baldness have shown some success, but both have moderate side effects and often produce disappointing hair regrowth results.

This means the only long-term solution has been hair transplantation surgery, but now this other drug could prove to be a game-changer.

To find what drug would be perfect to combine with hair transplantation, Dr Nathan Hawkshaw and his colleagues tried to identify the molecular mechanisms of an old immunosuppressive drug, Cyclosporine A (CsA).

While used since the 1980s as a crucial drug that suppresses transplant rejection and autoimmune diseases, CsA often has severe side effects, the least serious of which leads to unwanted hair growth.

Hair follicle

The immunofluorescence of the β-catenin protein (red) and cell nuclei (blue) in the human hair follicle bulb, the command centre for maintaining hair growth. Image: Nathan John Hawkshaw

By carrying out a full gene expression analysis of isolated human scalp hair follicles treated with CsA, the team found that the drug reduces the expression of SFRP1. This is a key protein that negatively regulates Wnt signalling, a master pathway that is crucial for the development and growth of many tissues, including hair follicles.

This breakthrough identified it as a game-changer for hair growth, but also helped to solve why CsA can also lead to unwanted hair growth in the drug’s original patients – it removes an inbuilt and potent molecular brake on human hair growth.

Crucially, the inhibitor mechanism is completely unrelated to CsA immunosuppressive activities, making SFRP1 the protein of choice for anti-hair-loss treatments.

Clinical trial needed

Once it was identified, it was then just a matter of digging through available drugs to find the osteoporosis drug WAY-316606. Lo and behold, applying it to balding scalp showed even better results than CsA without any of the side effects.

“The fact that this new agent, which had never even been considered in a hair-loss context, promotes human hair growth is exciting because of its translational potential: it could one day make a real difference to people who suffer from hair loss,” said Hawkshaw.

“Clearly though, a clinical trial is required next to tell us whether this drug or similar compounds are both effective and safe in hair-loss patients.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic