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Gone Today, Hair Tomorrow


By Bekah Wright

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Hair loss may not be as permanent as once thought.

Courtesy of Getty Images.

“What if… ?” Such pondering often leads to scientific breakthroughs. This was true when two UCLA professors noticed something interesting about hair follicle stem cells. Their findings are particularly exciting for people struggling with hair loss: Drugs based on the two professors’ research can reawaken dormant hair follicles and accelerate their regrowth.

Heather Christofk ’01, an associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular and medical pharmacology, and William Lowry, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, were conducting a study at UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research when they discovered that certain molecules impact the metabolism of hair follicle stem cells directly, without relying on signals from other cells. “We found that the activity of a particular metabolic enzyme [lactate dehydrogenase] appears to determine whether the stem cell activates or not,” Lowry says. “This is the first time anyone’s ever studied metabolic enzymes for a role in this process.”

Previous scientific approaches for treating hair loss have resulted in the advent of drugs that trigger regrowth through cell-to-cell signaling. But the two topical drugs in Christofk’s and Lowry’s study work independently by increasing lactate production to accelerate hair growth. Though both drugs have the same target, they work through different mechanisms. Lowry notes, however, that some people don’t experience hair regrowth after chemotherapy. “We don’t know why,” he says, “but it’s something we’d like to explore.”

On the horizon are human trials to determine which of the two drugs is most effective and has the fewest side effects. In a pre-trial phase, the team has developed new analogues of the molecules that work better.

Can this approach work on other stem cells besides those in hair follicles? Christofk points to work on intestinal stem cells under way at the University of Utah: “Our colleagues’ study shows that a similar biology happens in a population other than hair follicle stem cells.” Questions pondered by both universities: How does increased lactate production accelerate the activation of these cells? Why do these cells make more lactate? Why do cells have higher activity of the key enzyme lactate dehydrogenase?

Sharing information and moving science ahead is something that excites Christofk. “The field of metabolism has grown over the last few years,” she says. Christofk is counting on her research with Lowry to spur “What ifs … ” for other scientific studies. “Hopefully, our work will inspire others,” she says.