Big science zooms in on a new cure for baldness

Jason Alexander, like many men, has a bald pate. Scientists are finding out more about why this happens.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

In mice and men, baldness is a scourge that cries out for a cure. Fortunately, a far-flung group of American researchers is on it — and on Wednesday reported progress on this front in the very sober journal Science Translational Medicine.

Plucking hair follicles from the pates of 22 men with male-pattern baldness(think George Constanza here) and an army of mice, researchers detected a key difference between patches where hair was growing and patches where it was thinning or bald: In humans, a prostaglandin called PGD2 was far more plentiful in areas of the pate that were bald than in patches where hair continued to grow; and in mice, the same prostaglandin was in large supply when they were in the shedding phase of their normal hair follicle cycle.

The team was led by dermatologist Luis Garza (then of the University of Pennsylvania, now at Johns Hopkins University) and by Penn dermatologist George Cotsarelis. The discovery that prostaglandins might be the catalyst that sets baldness in motion, was a surprise to the researachers, who “hadn’t thought about prostaglandins in relation to hair loss,” said Cotsarelis.


From there, researchers were able to identify the receptor — the cellular landing dock — for D2, called GPR44. Find a way to block that receptor, or somehow thwart PGD2’s path to it, and, voila! —baldness doesn’t happen. That, say the researchers, will be their next effort — to try topical treatments that block the GPR44 receptor. They hope the same approach might help find treatments that prevent hair thinning in women.

Male pattern baldness strikes 80% of men younger than 70, causing hair growth to thin in a distinctive pattern. Currently, just two medications, Monoxidil (marketed as Rogaine) and Finasteride (marketed as Propecia or Proscar), are available to combat hair loss.