Bald facts can be found in the genes, study says


It doesn’t mean an end to those latenight in­fomer­cials for hair in a can. But an in­ter­na­tional team that in­cluded McGill Uni­ver­sity has found a cause for male-pat­tern bald­ness – a ge­netic glitch that in­creases a man’s risk seven­fold.

The bald­ness “break­through” an­nounced yes­ter­day started as typ­i­cal med­i­cal re­search: Sci­en­tists study­ing im­por­tant dis­eases, such as dis­eases of the heart and ar­ter­ies.

Then came an af­ter­thought. Bald­ness has been linked with an in­creased risk of heart dis­ease.

“So as a lark, we de­cided we would try to find the genes that in­crease peo­ple’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to male-pat­tern bald­ness,” said Dr. Brent Richards, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ments of medicine and hu­man ge­net­ics at McGill.

Richards and his col­leagues found an en­tirely new re­gion of the genome which in­creased sus­cep­ti­bil­ity for malepat­tern bald­ness. “What was sur­pris­ing to us is that it was not re­ally near to any gene at all,” he said. “It seemed to lie in this kind of gene desert.”

Whether it’s drug-able or fix­able re­mains to be seen. “It will be a long time be­fore the dis­cov­ery will bear any fruit,” Richards said. “But it does def­i­nitely ex­pand our un­der­stand­ing of what seems to in­flu­ence male-pat­tern bald­ness.”

An­dro­genic alope­cia af­fects 40 per cent of men. Women lose hair as they age, too, but males tend to lose their hair “in a rather de­fin­able pat­tern,” Richards said – on the top and at the tem­ples, re­sult­ing in that dis­tinc­tive “M” shape.

“Men and women with hair loss ex­pe­ri­ence neg­a­tive body-im­age per­cep­tions,” the re­searchers write in the jour­nal Na­ture Ge­net­ics, and it has spawned a $1-bil­lion a year in­dus­try in the U.S. alone. Glob­ally, an­nual sales for Merck & Co. Inc.’s hair-loss pill, Prope­cia, sur­passed $405 mil­lion last year.

Un­til now, the only gene found for male hair loss was on the X, or fe­male chro­mo­some. “That’s where the idea that bald­ness is in­her­ited from the mother’s side of the fam­ily comes from,” Richards said. “But we knew it only ex­plained a frac­tion of this sus­cep­ti­bil­ity.”

For their study, 547 older men with a full head of hair were com­pared with 578 younger men who had lost al­most all their hair. The re­searchers found two re­gions on chro­mo­some 20 that in­creased the risk of male pat­tern bald­ness. They con­firmed the find­ings in 1,650 more men. Re­searchers from King’s Col­lege Lon­don, Ice­land, Switzer­land and the Nether­lands also par­tic­i­pated in the study.

By co­in­ci­dence, a sep­a­rate study pub­lished in the same jour­nal re­ported sci­en­tists had iso­lated a group of stem cells in mice that can re­pop­u­late and main­tain all cell types of the hair fol­li­cle.

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