Rethinking Healthcare

In search for genetic cure for baldness, link to cancer found

Posting in Cancer

The financial impetus of finding a baldness cure could finance an important line of cancer research.

I have never been bothered by baldness. Much of my crown was empty when I married at age 22. It was all gone by the time I started in tech writing, at 28.

My line is a familiar one. Grass doesn't grow on a busy street. And my wife's father went bald early, too, so she's not bothered about it.

Hair loss is genetic. Genes that cause hair loss can come from the mother or the father. A genetic pathway for turning hair growth off-and-on was recently discovered in Sweden.  It has long been believed that hair could be a target for gene therapy.

Our 18 year old son is worried. He has a full head of lustrous red hair, long enough to wear in a big, thick ponytail. What's in his future?

Maybe, hair. A team under Angela Christiano (above, not follically-challenged) at Columbia University in New York has found that a mutation in the APCDD1 gene, which lives on chromosome 18, inhibits the Wnt signaling pathway that can turn hair growth on-and-off.

This is important, Dr. Christiano says, because "we have years of beautiful data in our field about hair growth in mice," and this matches it, meaning the mouse data can be brought to bear in the search for cures. The key is the Wnt (pronounced wint) signaling pathway:

"Manipulating the Wnt pathway may have an effect on hair follicle growth -- for the first time, in humans," said Dr. Christiano. "And unlike commonly available treatments for hair loss that involve blocking hormonal pathways, treatments involving the Wnt pathway would be non-hormonal, which may enable many more people suffering from hair loss to receive such therapies."

Now before you start making that old Seinfeld line about the dermatologist not being a real doctor, Wnt signaling pathways have also been implicated in many cancers, and new targets for drugs aimed at it have been recently identified. The field is big enough to have its own community of researchers.

More research money could speed things along, and baldness could be a source of that money.

Thus the financial impetus of finding a baldness cure could finance an important line of cancer research.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure