Study Finds Pattern in Male Baldness: Could There Be a Cure?

A boon for balding pates: scientists have pinpointed a protein that may trigger hair loss, and it could be a target for a cure.

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Has the world finally found an answer to man’s hairiest question? Shall great tufts again sweep across the foreheads whence they retreated years ago?

Don’t start selling all your wig company stock just yet, but according to a recent study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers have identified a protein that appears to play a role in male pattern baldness — and inhibiting that protein, they believe, may allow dormant hair follicles to rise again.

Like many proteins, the name is a mouthful: prostaglandin D2, or PGD2. University of Pennsylvania’s Luis A. Garza and his team first compared the complete genetic makeup of hairy and not-so-hairy areas on five balding men’s scalps. Through that analysis, they found higher concentrations of the gene that produces PGD2 in the bald parts. In 17 subsequent samples of scalp tissue, they found the concentration of the protein to be three times greater in men’s bare spots than in bushy spots. The researchers also used mice and human-hair cultures to show that inordinate amounts of the protein slowed or stopped growth.

(MORE: Study: Baldness Drug May Lead to Long-Term Sexual Dysfunction)

Past studies have shown that bald men still have the stem cells that create hair, one researcher noted to Bloomberg News. The once-flourishing follicles are there as well, but they’re smaller and produce thinner, smaller hairs; the hair over time simply becomes too weak to punch through the scalp. So if PGD2 is stunting that growth, then blocking the protein’s receptor could mean that some or all of the hair returns. As luck would have it, there are drugs already being tested for other conditions, such as allergies and facial flushing, that inhibit PGD2.

Male-pattern baldness affects tens of millions of men in America, and about 80% of white men before they hit age 70. The erosion can start in one’s teens but is more likely to occur later on; according to the National Library of Medicine, more than 50% of men over the age of 50 have some amount of hair loss. The results from this study could be mane-changers, though as with so many promising findings, treatments based on them are still years away.

MORE: How to Fight Hair Loss