Men and women have been fighting baldness about as long as humans have had hair, but a new genetic discovery could finally mean a cure is within reach.
Researchers have linked alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair thinning and hair loss in over five million Americans, to eight genes, which will likely open the flood gates for new treatments, Health Day reported.
The researchers were surprised to find that other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes have already been linked to these same eight genes, so drugs already in development could be used for hair loss.
"This greatly accelerated our ability to think about new drugs for patients with alopecia areata because so much work has already been done in these other diseases," said senior study author, Dr. Angela Christiano, professor of dermatology and genetics and development at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "It is a huge advantage."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any treatments for alopecia areata, which is one of the most common autoimmune diseases, according to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.
The disease affects men and women equally, but women seek treatment more often and are, therefore, diagnosed more frequently. The disease’s progression is unpredictable and can result in losing a small patch of hair, or all of the hair on the scalp.
“It's very traumatic for men, and it's harder for them to cover it up. Hair loss is life-altering. You have lost your outward identity. You haven't changed inside, but that's not what's seen by the world," said Vicki Kalabokes, president and CEO of the Alopecia Foundation, which helped fund the research.
Christiano’s team found a correlation between the number of genes associated with alopecia areata and the severity of the condition. Those who carried at least 16 alopecia-associated genes had a higher chance of total hair loss, or alopecia universalis, the researchers found.
One gene in particular – ULBP3 – attracted the toxic cells that attack the follicle, resulting in hair loss. Researchers observed the immune system T cells, which can invade and destroy an organ, under a microscope and compared them to bees swarming around the follicle. The follicle goes dormant when this happens, so lost hair is not replaced.
"It's like putting nectar on the hair follicle, then the 'bees' come in and do their damage.”
The study was published in the July issue of the journal Nature.