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Of Hairless Mice and Men


By David Greenwald

Published Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM

Dr. Million Mulugeta has more than a professional interest in the stunning discovery that he and colleagues at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System recently published to much fanfare. After all, what balding man like Mulugeta wouldn't thrill to the news of a potential breakthrough treatment for hair restoration?

That the discovery was completely accidental makes it all the more tantalizing.

In their lab on the sprawling West L.A. campus of the Veterans Administration, Mulugeta and Drs. Yvette Taché and Lixin Wang were studying whether a compound called astressin-B could ward off the impact of chronic stress on the colonic motor function of mice that had been genetically engineered to mimic stress symptoms including hair loss.


Illustration by Seth

While astressin-B only partially reduced stress in the altered animals' guts, it appeared to have a wondrous effect on their previously threadbare backs, which sprouted luxurious coats of fur.

It took a little while, however, for the researchers to realize what had happened. Since their initial experiment had only partial effect, Mulugeta,Taché and Wang turned their attention elsewhere, until about three months later. When they returned to their mice, however, the critters seemed to have vanished.

"Surprise!" Mulugeta says of his initial reaction.

"They were gone," adds Wang.

"They all looked the same," reinforced Taché.

Of course, the formerly follicle-challenged rodents were still there in their cages. But instead of standing out as baldies among their furry brethren, they blended right in with the rest of the crowd. Only by checking the tiny ear tags on each mouse, in fact, were the researchers able to identify the ones from the modified group.

Not only did the original mutant mice keep their new hair, but the effect was unerringly reproduced in subsequent experiments. The scientists had stumbled upon one of those rare but happy accidents of science — like the unintentional discoveries of penicillin, Newton's theory of gravity and Viagra.

The researchers surmise that astressin-B blocks a stress-related hormone linked to hair loss, thereby inducing the regrowth of fading locks. A short treatment — the mice received injections for just five days — causes "an astounding, long-term hair regrowth in chronically stressed mutant mice," Mulugeta says.

But enough of mice. What of men?

See the hair-raising research in action in this CBS report

"This could open new avenues in humans through the modulation of the stress-hormone receptors, particularly hair loss related to chronic stress and aging," contends Mulugeta, sounding very much the focused scientist he is, although cautioning that a "cure" for baldness is still a long way off, if it can ever be achieved.

Was he tempted to try the treatment on himself?

For a moment, Mulugeta slips out of his medical researcher role and becomes just another hopeful balding guy.

"Oh, I don't know," the intrepid scientist answers with a smile. "Maybe a little bit. Yeah, maybe a little bit."