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Researchers Hope a Treatment that Creates New Hair Follicles Cures Male Baldness

A specific protein called fibroblast growth factor 9, when overstimulated in mice, increased new hair follicle formation by a factor of two or three

Photo: Welshsk

In the movie Duplicity, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play corporate spies battling to gain access to a chemical formula solving baldness, which will make them millions. Things don’t work out for them in the film—the formula turns out to be bogus. That’s normally where stories about treatments for baldness end up. But a real life company called Follica thinks it has a new twist.

The company, The Scientist explains, was founded by a group of scientists who have been working on this problem for several years. The breakthrough they’re betting on is based upon a 2007 finding published in Nature showing that new hair follicles formed when mice regrew wounded tissue. A wound “induces an embryonic phenotype in skin,” they explain in the paper, and that process allows a window for creating new hair follicles. ”These findings suggest treatments for wounds, hair loss and other degenerative skin disorders,” the researchers wrote.

The fixing hair loss part of that, of course, would be the jackpot. The Scientist reports on what we know about the company’s progress:

Although Follica has released few details on their proprietary procedure, the general idea is clear: their patented minimally invasive “skin perturbation” device removes the top layers of skin, causing the underlying skin cells to revert to a stem-like state, after which a molecule is applied topically to direct the formation of new hair follicles.

Indeed, Follica has already done preclinical and clinical trials, says Olle, “all of which confirm that we can consistently create new hair follicles in mice and in humans. As far as I know, no other approach has been able to achieve that.”

This summer, co-founder George Cotsarelis, whose lab made that original 2007 breakthrough, published another Nature Medicine paper pinpointing a specific protein called  fibroblast growth factor 9 that increased new hair follicle formation by a factor of two or three when overstimulated in mice, the Scientist writes. The next steps will be to test this finding in human skin grafts and, if all goes well, perform clinical trials.

Scientists have been trying to solve the mystery of the missing hair follicle for decades, however, and many other labs are pursuing this endeavor, as attested by the more than 200 clinical trials currently listed by the National Institutes of Heath. Whichever lab—if any—eventually cracks that puzzle, will surely reap the millions Duplicity imagined—along the thanks of millions of self-conscious men around the world.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Are Norway’s Moose Going Bald? 
The Stunning Results of Throwing a Water Balloon at a Bald Man’s Head 

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