A drug originally designed to treat a bone disease may offer a new way to cure baldness

Business Insider US

U.S. President Donald Trump jokes about covering his bald spot while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
  • Researchers say they've found a drug that may be able to prevent hair loss.
  • The drug was designed to treat osteoporosis, but it may have potential to cure baldness as well.
  • Researchers still need to test the drug on people before they can say how well it works and whether it's safe. 

Baldness is complicated — and no, it's not all your mother's fault.

There are only a few treatments that experts say actually work for people who are starting to lose their hair, though they aren't effective for everyone.

That makes any potential new approach exciting.

In a study published this week in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers announced that a drug designed to treat osteoporosis — a condition in which bones become weak and vulnerable to breaking — may offer a novel way to reverse hair loss and help cure baldness.

Big questions remain, though, and it's still far from human use.

Targeting a protein that's connected to hair growth

The researchers behind the study started by investigating a drug called cyclosporine A, a fungal-derived medication that can suppress the immune system. It's used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease, as well as to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs. One of its side effects is triggering hair growth.

But suppressing your immune system to grow more hair isn't a safe trade-off. So the researchers tried to identify the component of that medication that triggers hair growth.

By analysing regrown hair follicles, they found that a protein called SFRP1, which suppresses growth, had been affected by the drug — making that protein a likely target.

The researchers then identified another medication that targets that protein. As it happens, that drug, known as WAY-316606, was designed to treat osteoporosis.

That medication is at least theoretically well tolerated, meaning it shouldn't have dangerous side effects. The scientists tested it on scalp hair follicles from more than 40 patients who were undergoing hair-transplant procedures. In that context, the drug triggered hair growth.

Exciting results, but questions remain

"The fact 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," Nathan Hawkshaw, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Testing the drug on follicles instead of just in cells is an important step toward demonstrating a practical application. But more research is needed, and such an application is still a ways off.

The drugs now used for hair loss are minoxidil (often known as Rogaine) and finasteride (often known as Propecia). But those don't work for several patients and can have serious side effects.

Minoxidil works for only 30-40% of patients and can trigger rapid heart rate and irritation. When people stop taking it, their regrown hair falls back out.

Finasteride, which President Donald Trump reportedly uses, can be taken only by men, doesn't work for all, and can cause serious side effects including sexual dysfunction that may last after a person stops taking the drug, though that's rare.

Until WAY-316606 is tested on a large group of people over a long time, it's hard to say how well it works and how safe it is. That trial process can take years.

"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," Hawkshaw said.

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