Baldness may be caused by inactive stem cells in hair follicles, according to a new study involving mice. Researchers found that increasing the expression of one protein (lactate dehydrogenase, or LDH) and blocking the compound pyruvate stimulates hair growth—and drugs already exist that can do both. While you may have not witnessed a mouse with a combover (if you have, congratulations), the findings could be a first step toward developing a cure for hair loss.
“We were looking for potential patterns of distinct metabolism, and surprisingly uncovered high LDH activity in the stem cells,” coauthor on the study William Lowry of UCLA told Fatherly. “This was not hypothesis driven, so kismet?”
This isn’t the first time scientists have found a potential cure for baldness, nor is it the first time they’ve considered using stem cells. Researchers already knew that a specific part of every hair follicle’s root contains stem cells primed to proliferate and regrow hair. And past studies have demonstrated that, as cell within these follicles digest nutrients and grow (a process called cell metabolism), different hair growth patterns emerge. So Lowry and colleagues set out to do basic science, nothing more. Their goal was to examine the metabolic states of multiple cells in mouse hair follicles.
But when Lowry and his team measured cell metabolism in mouse hair, the organic compounds lactate and pyruvate stuck out like bad toupees. They found that high levels of pyruvate and low levels of lactate stymied hair growth. They then experimented with these two organic compounds, and found that increasing the expression of LDH raises lactate levels while lowering pyruvate levels (LDH converts lactate to pyruvate and vice versa). They then identified a drug, UK5099 that blocks pyruvate from entering the cell, effecting an increase in cellular lactate concentration.
“This led to the identification of small molecules that manipulate metabolism and therefore, stem cell activation,” Lowry says. In other words, they discovered drugs that could potentially trick stem cells into growing more hair.
It’s important to note that these findings are very much preliminary, namely because they involve mice. The vast majority of mouse studies do not yield results that have any immediate implications. So this is by no means a cure for human baldness. “We do not know how much these results will apply to other animals, including humans,” Lowry says.
But that doesn’t mean Lowry and colleagues aren’t working on practical applications. Lowry intends to start a company that he hopes will develop commercial hair loss treatments in the near future. To be fair, it’s a fairly lucrative business. The market for treating alopecia, an autoimmune disease that can cause sudden, dramatic hair loss, alone is expected to reach $11.8 billion by 2024. “We are working hard to translate these findings,” Lowry says. “Lots of people are exploring many avenues to treat all types of alopecia, which should give hope to those suffering from this issue.”
This knowledge will likely be used to treat diseases before its applied to handling basic bald spots. But there is hope that, in the future, scientists may have the technology to do both—if not for you, then for your kid’s gorgeous mane.