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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 | Jun. 3, 2004

UBC Researcher Seeking a Cure for Baldness

Solution could be available within ten years

By Hilary Thomson

Researcher Kevin McElwee -- one of only a few people in the world who hold a doctoral degree in hair biology -- thinks a cure for baldness that uses the technique of hair cloning could be commercially available within 10 years.

Hair cloning is a slang term for engineered hair growth. The process involves isolating a group of cells at the base of the hair follicle -- the living part of hair rooted in the skin. Once the follicular cells are multiplied in a laboratory, they can then be implanted back into the donor’s scalp where they divide to create new follicles and generate new hair.

A sample of about 10 hairs could produce several million cultured cells, which, in turn, could grow several thousand hairs. (See sidebar for information on scalp hair population).

Scientists have been studying hair cloning in animal models for a few years, but McElwee is the first investigator to demonstrate exactly how cloning works.

“Now that we have proof of how this process works, we can accelerate the research toward creating a limitless supply of hair -- in effect, a cure for baldness,” says the 34-year-old.

While early results are promising, he estimates it will take almost a decade of further study, clinical trials and meeting regulatory requirements before cloning is widely available.

Common or pattern balding affects about 20 per cent of men in their 20s. By age 50, about half the male population and 20 per cent of women have problems with baldness or hair thinning.

An expert in the cellular mechanics of hair loss and growth, McElwee was recruited by Dr. Jerry Shapiro, a world authority on hair disorders, to join the division of dermatology in UBC’s department of medicine in March 2004. Also an investigator with the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, McElwee came to Canada from Philipp University in Germany where he was a senior scientist in the department of dermatology.

A biologist and immunologist, McElwee completed his unique PhD in the immunological mechanisms involved in alopecia areata, an inflammatory hair loss disease that can affect men, women and children and cause full body hair loss. The cause of the disease is not fully understood but it is believed that an individual’s own immune system prevents hair follicles from producing hair fibre.

This month, McElwee will travel to the International Meeting of Hair Research Societies in Berlin to present his findings on the cells believed to be the primary culprits in causing the disease.

By separating cells in lymph nodes, McElwee has determined which cells are capable of inducing the disease. He found two types of cells caused balding problems: CD8, which produce patchy baldness and CD4, which produce systemic balding.

“This research is the first evidence that CD4 cells are our primary target in fighting alopecia areata,” he says. “This new data will help us develop interventions and treatments to ease or stop this condition which can be psychologically devastating for patients.”

Shapiro and McElwee will host the International Meeting of Hair Research Societies in Vancouver in 2007.

For more information on hair loss, visit www.hairinfo.org.

Did you know?

  • On average, each person has a total of 20 million hair follicles on their skin, of which 90,000 to 140,000 are scalp hair follicles.
  • You can lose up to 25 per cent of your scalp hair before it becomes noticeable.
  • Typically, scalp hair fibres grow for two to seven years before being replaced by a new hair fibre.
  • People may lose up to 100 scalp hairs a day as a result of normal hair cycling.
  • The numbers of hairs on the head vary with colour. Redheads have about 90,000 hairs and black-haired people about 108,000 hairs, while brown- and blonde- haired people have up to 140,000.
  • On average, hair is composed of about 50 per cent carbon, 21 per cent oxygen, 17 per cent nitrogen, as well as hydrogen and sulphur. Hair also contains trace amounts of magnesium, arsenic, iron, chromium and other metals and minerals.
  • Circus performers who hang by their hair know how strong it is. In theory, you could gradually hang between 5,600kg and 8,400kg from one head of hair without breaking individual hairs.
  • The North American hair loss industry is estimated at $7 billion a year.
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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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