By studying baldness in an immunodeficient patient, researchers believe they are moving closer to identifying the genes governing hair growth — and to gene therapies aimed at treating baldness.
“Understanding the genetic underpinnings of the hair cycle will provide much better and rationally designed targets for the treatment of male-pattern baldness and other hair loss disorders in the future,” said Dr. Angela Christiano of Columbia University in New York City, lead author of a study published in the April 8th issue of the journal Nature.
In an interview with Reuters Health, Christiano said her team’s research was prompted by a phenomenon observed in laboratory mice — that when a gene controlling the rodent’s immune response was ‘switched off,’ so too was their hair growth. In fact, immunodeficient mice are usually referred to by researchers as ‘nude’ mice.
Christiano and colleagues knew that deletion of the ‘NUDE’ gene inhibited both the maturation of immune T-cells in the mouse thymus gland, disabling immune function, as well as hair growth.
In their current study, the researchers conducted DNA tests on the members of a family from southern Italy, in which two sisters were born lacking both functioning immune systems and the ability to grow hair.
One girl died from the disorder, while the second survived following a bone marrow transplant but still failed to grow hair. Studying the surviving sister, Christiano said the researchers “noticed that her condition very much resembled that of the NUDE mouse. So we decided to see if the disease in her family was linked to the human NUDE gene.”
They discovered that the girl carried “a mutation in the middle of the gene that causes it to be completely wiped out,” Christiano said.
“Our goal now is to reintroduce the nude gene into her scalp to see if we can correct the disorder and grow her hair back,” Christiano added.
All of these findings may have broader implications for the treatment of male-pattern baldness and alopecia areata, the temporary, patchy hair loss found in both sexes.
Genes such as NUDE appear to work like “switches,” Christiano explained, “turning other genes on and off. Once we can learn how to regulate the switches and the targets, my laboratory’s goal is to design a topical therapy that will approach the hair problem from both sides” — treating both hair loss as well as the removal of unwanted hair.