She calls her startup Rapunzel, and for better reason: Angela Christiano is working on growing a full head of hair in the laboratory. Christiano, a researcher at Columbia University, has a condition known as alopecia areata, which results in sudden and substantial hair loss. And she’s not satisfied with the treatments on the market: there are just two approved drugs for hair loss, and both are more than 20 years old.
So, she’s attempting a significantly new approach — turning a patient’s own stem cells, which in theory can convert into any type of cell in the body, into hair that could then be transplanted in order to cover bald patches.
Christiano’s work — she’s also got a second startup, getting an entirely different tack — reflects a burgeoning interest in the biotech community in treating baldness as a medical affliction. The problem has traditionally been treated as a cosmetic issue, so it’s drawn less attention than dire diseases like cancer. But scientists are now tackling the problem in several uncommon ways — though experts caution that false starts are inevitable and it’ll be a while before new products hit the market.
“Hair is hot right now,” said Dr. Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. “But it’s a struggle to grow hair.”
Several forms of hair loss impact both men and women. The most promptly devastating kind is alopecia areata — a rare condition in which the immune system attacks hair follicles, causing huge swaths of hair to fall out en masse. Another is androgenetic alopecia — a genetic form of hair loss found in both men and women, commonly starting at a relatively young age.
Then there’s run-of-the-mill hair loss due to aging, which also affects both genders. Half of all women experience some form of hair loss, especially shortly after menopause, and it can cause great turmoil. “Women feel they shouldn’t lose their hair, and have an enormous amount of emotional anxiety about it,” Piliang claimed.
The two hair loss drugs on the market now are Propecia and Rogaine, or minoxidil, which is the only approved treatment for women, and which now comes in purple-and-teal packaging marketed for female patients. (Propecia alters hormonal levels so powerfully that pregnant women are advised to not even touch the pills.) Given that Americans spend $3.5 billion a year on hair loss products — most of which don’t work at all — there’s huge financial incentive to develop something new.
So, what’s in the works?
Samumed, a San Diego startup that shot to the spotlight this year with ambitious claims that it’s inventing drugs to reverse aging, is working on baldness as well as diseases for instance, osteoarthritis and pancreatic cancer. Samumed’s approach targets a molecular signaling channel known as the WNT pathway, which plays a crucial role in hair growth. The company says it does not interfere with hormones — a major concern in developing hair growth products for women. The company has already performed two Phase 2 trials for male pattern baldness.
In one trial with more than 300 patients, participants who took a low dose of the drug showed a nearly 10 percent increase in hair count over 135 days. Those taking placebos remained to lose hair. The study has not been published or peer-reviewed; the company showcased the results this spring at a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Yet, the drug has been assessed only in men; testing the drug in women is part of Samumed’s “long-term plan,” but the company has to discuss it first with the Food and Drug Administration, said Dr. Yusuf Yazici, chief medical officer of Samumed. “Androgenetic alopecia is a bigger disease in men — more patients are affected,” he believed.
Christiano is taking a different approach — or, actually, two different approaches. Her startup Vixen Pharmaceuticals worked to develop a hair loss drug from so-called JAK inhibitors, which tamp down the activity of a class of enzymes called janus kinase. Two JAK inhibitors have been approved by the FDA — not for baldness, but for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and a type of skin cancer called myelofibrosis. Both are used off-label for other autoimmune conditions — including baldness.
Vixen was acquired a few months ago by Pennsylvania-based Aclaris Therapeutics; the company intends to develop JAK inhibitors to treat hair loss.
Along with her second startup, Rapunzel, Christiano aims to solve a big problem in hair transplant surgery: it requires removing hair from one part of the body to transplant it elsewhere. But there’s only a limited amount of hair to harvest from one’s very own body.
That’s why she wants to grow hair in the laboratory. The obstacle, to this day, has been getting scalp stem cells to turn into actual hair follicles — for years, scientists might only get them to morph into standard fibroblasts, which are cells that create generic connective tissue.
Christiano’s lab has now found that it is able to grow actual hair on a 3-D scaffold of tissue culture medium doused with a mix of growth factors.
“Rat hair, that is — we can grow rat hair like it’s no tomorrow,” Christiano said. “But we think we can do it with human hair, as well.” Hair restoration surgeon Dr. Joseph Greco thinks Christiano is headed in the right direction. “The race to the moon is the multiplication of hair,” Greco stated. “To be able to feature an inexhaustible supply … That’s coming in the next five to 10 years.”
Female pattern baldness: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Thinning Hair in Women: Warning Sign of Underlying Health Issues
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