Sometimes, the answer to a difficult problem may come from an unexpected direction. In this instance, researchers have found that a drug designed to treat osteoarthritis might also combat baldness.
Hair loss can be incredibly distressing for men and women alike.
Consequently, for many years, scientists have made efforts to find a way to combat it.
Over the centuries, in the hunt for a hair loss cure, no path has been left untrodden — no matter how unusual.
For instance, in Ancient Egypt, where premature baldness was thought to be a punishment from the gods, one remedy involved rubbing goat dung into the scalp.
Because goats never lose their hair, this treatment was supposed to trick the gods into believing that the afflicted individual was, in fact, a goat.
Thousands of years later, the options are still limited; there are now two available hair-loss drugs — minoxidil and finasteride — both of which have mixed results and some unpleasant side effects, including allergic reactions, erectile dysfunction, and, paradoxically, hair loss.
The other option is hair transplantation surgery, which is costly, long-winded, and painful.
Searching for a better option
Dr. Nathan Hawkshaw and colleagues, from the University of Manchester's Centre for Dermatology Research in the United Kingdom, are involved in an ongoing search for a drug to fill this pharmaceutical void.
On this quest, they assess existing drugs that are known to be well tolerated. They hope to find a compound that is already safe for human use that may also be useful in treating androgenetic alopecia, which is also known as male-pattern baldness (although it can affect women, too).
One drug that piqued their interest was an immunosuppressive called cyclosporine A (CsA). It has been used to help prevent the rejection of transplants since the 1980s. And, one of CsA's side effects is unwanted hair growth.
Dr. Hawkshaw took this as his starting point. If they could understand the mechanism at work, it might provide a novel approach to treating hair loss.
Using isolated human scalp hair follicles, they found that CsA reduced the expression of a protein called SFRP1. This protein is known to inhibit the growth of tissues, including hair follicles.
This explains why CsA promotes hair growth; it effectively takes the brake off of follicle activity. It also offers up a new mechanism to exploit.
Dr. Hawkshaw sought an existing drug that would interact with this pathway and, potentially, encourage hair growth. After a long search, he came across WAY-316606, a drug originally designed to treat osteoporosis. WAY-316606 specifically targets SFRP1.
To investigate whether the drug might work, the team experimented with donated human hair follicles from people undergoing hair transplantation.
"Thanks to our collaboration with a local hair transplant surgeon, Dr. Asim Shahmalak, we were able to conduct our experiments with scalp hair follicles that had generously been donated by over 40 patients and were then tested in organ cultures."
Using this tissue was important, as Dr. Hawkshaw explains, "This makes our research clinically very relevant, as many hair research studies only use cell culture."
In fact, previous studies that had looked at the hair growth properties of CsA had drawn completely different conclusions.
Dr. Hawkshaw explains, "When the hair growth-promoting effects of CsA were previously studied in mice, a very different molecular mechanism of action was suggested; had we relied on these mouse research concepts, we would have been barking up the wrong tree."
Their results were published earlier this week in the journal PLOS Biology.
Did it work?
Application of the osteoporosis drug did indeed encourage new hair growth in the tissue samples. Dr. Hawkshaw believes that WAY-316606 might even outpace CsA, but without the unpalatable side effects.
"The fact this new agent, which had never even been considered in a hair loss context," he says, "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."
Many people will greet this discovery with jubilation. However, before large clinical trials have been run, we should be cautious. The study was carried out in relevant human tissue, but, in real-life situations, drugs can respond in subtly different ways.
Only time and research will tell, but the findings are a great start. Even if WAY-316606 does not cut the mustard, investigating related molecules might eventually come up with the goods.