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Monday, October 13, 2008

New Genetic Research Uncovers Possible Cure for Male Pattern Baldness

A new genetic discovery suggests that some men's hair loss may not be all mom's fault after all.

Two groups of international researchers, including one team with members from Canada, have independently found a region of DNA that appears to increase some men's susceptibility to male pattern baldness.

Scientists have long known there is a genetic variant passed from mothers to sons via the X chromosome that causes men to start losing their hair by the time they reach middle-age.

"That's where the idea that baldness is inherited from the mother's side of the family comes from," said Dr. Brent Richards, an endocrinologist at McGill University and lead author of one of the studies. "However, it's been long recognized that there must be several genes causing male pattern baldness."

The newly identified genetic region "is in an entirely novel area on chromosome 20," Richards said from Montreal, noting that men who have both genetic variations on the two chromosomes have a sevenfold higher risk of seeing their hairline recede over time.

He said one in seven men - or 14 per cent of the population - have both genetic anomalies.

"How this novel gene or area of the genome influences male pattern baldness will require a lot more research."

About one-third of men are affected by male pattern baldness - the most common type of hair loss - by age 45. The loss begins above both temples and results in a distinctive M-shaped hairline. More than 80 per cent of cases are believed to be hereditary.

Hair loss affects about 40 per cent of women, mostly after menopause, but Richards said more research is needed to determine what role - if any - the area on chromosome 20 plays in females.

To conduct the study, Richards collaborated with researchers in the United Kingdom, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. They analyzed the genomes of 1,125 Caucasian men who had been assessed for male pattern baldness, then confirmed the finding on chromosome 20 in another 1,650 men.

"Our study only involved Caucasian men, and although we would assume the risk factors are similar in different races, we have no idea," Richards said.

The research is published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Genetics, along with a study showing similar findings by a separate group of German scientists.

Dr. Kevin McElwee of the University of British Columbia called the finding "quite exciting."

"It's a big step forward in terms of understanding the disease mechanism involved and we certainly need to know what the disease mechanism is if we want to develop new and effective treatments for it," said McElwee, a researcher in hair loss at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

"So in that sense it's a big discovery."

While not a disease, the condition creates considerable social and economic fallout: in the United States alone, men spent more than $115 million for hair transplantation in 2007.

Worldwide, about $2 billion is spent each year on transplants, pharmaceutical lotions like Propecia and Rogaine, thickening agents, scalp prosthetics and wigs to fight or hide baldness, said McElwee, noting that the amount is a conservative estimate and could be as high as $10 billion annually.

Still, he pointed out that it could be 15 to 20 years before scientists investigating the new genetic target figure out how it affects male pattern baldness and how that could be overcome.

"To actually make that into treatment, we're talking about a lot more research and effort and time before we actually see something that we can put on our heads and grow hair with."

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