Reporting Jason DeRusha
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — More than 50 million American men suffer from hair loss and baldness. One in two by the age of 50 will experience hair loss, as will one in four women. Hundreds of millions of dollars is spent every year on research. So why is it so hard to cure baldness?
To understand the challenge, you have to understand the cause of baldness, said Vern Cole, founder and president of the Hair Restoration Institute of Minnesota.
“It’s genetics, good old-fashioned genetics,” said Cole.
But scientists have had a hard time pinpointing the precise gene that causes baldness. Scientists found one gene in 2009, but they’ve had a hard time getting results with various therapies targeted to that gene.
“A lot of money is being spent in R & D,” said Cole.
Researchers are looking at two sides of baldness: How do we prevent it? And How do we regrow hair after a follicle has died?
According to some market research, Americans spend more than $3 billion a year attacking hair loss – on surgeries, medicines and hairpieces.
At Cole’s practice, a medical doctor transplants living hair follicles into areas where a patient is balding.
“This is permanent hair, genetically programmed to never fall out,” said Cole, pointing to a donor area just above the neckline.
Why does that hair stick around?
“That’s a great question,” he responded.
Hair is a complex system of cells and hormones. It turns grey – or it doesn’t. It grows – or it falls out.
Scientists do know that the trigger for baldness is a hormone called DHT – Dihidrotestosterone. They just don’t know why it’s triggered.
“There’s this genetic tendency to store too much testosterone. It grabs onto the follicle, shrinks it, robs it of the blood supply,” said Cole, “thus the hair becomes thinner, finer, weaker, until it falls out.”
But until scientists can isolate the exact cause for baldness, “I don’t think there will be a cure,” said Cole.
“What’s on the horizon and is hopeful is the cloning of hair follicles,” he added, which he said would be huge news for patients who don’t have enough donor hair for a hair transplant procedure.
“If we can clone follicles, there would be an abundance of follicles, and that wouldn’t limit anyone from having a full head of hair,” Cole said.
Doctors are also doing stem cell research. Initially, they expected that bald men would have fewer stem cells than men without baldness, but that hasn’t proven to be true. Both groups have the same amount of stem cells beneath the scalp. So some researchers are trying to find a way to “turn on” the stem cells again, in order to produce new follicle growth.
Right now, most scientists believe that humans are born with about 10,000 follicles, and when they die, the hair follicles die.