Last updated May 15, 2018 at 11:51 am
An unwanted side-effect of immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine could lead to a practical treatment for balding.
A cruel side-effect of a drug used to prevent the immune system of transplant recipients rejecting new organs has provided fresh hope for men going bald.
In a paper published in the journal PLOS Biology, dermatologist Nathan Hawkshaw of the University of Manchester in the UK reveals how researching the downside of immunosuppressant medication led him – after following a somewhat tortuous path – to propose repurposing an entirely different drug, originally designed to treat osteoporosis, as a cure for baldness.
Organ transplant recipients are routinely given a drug called cyclosporine A (CsA), which functions to dampen rejection response.
In use since the 1980s, it is not a kind medication, bringing with it several unpleasant side-effects, one of which is unwanted hair growth.
This odd-seeming property intrigued Hawkshaw, who decided to look for the cause.
To do this, he and his colleagues conducted a full gene expression of human hair follicles treated with CsA. They discovered that the drug reduced the expression of a protein called SFRP1, which left unhindered functions to dampen a major signalling pathway that influences tissue formation – including hairs.
Effectively, the drug removed the body’s inbuilt brake that works to inhibit hair growth.
The discovery was surprising. CsA’s effect on SFRP1 had never before been noted, and, Hawkshaw discovered, it is completely unrelated to the drug’s immunosuppressive functions. And although CsA is far too powerful a compound to consider using as an anti-baldness measure, the research threw the affected protein firmly into the spotlight as a potential therapeutic target.
Promoting hair growth
A literature search revealed that an osteoporosis drug known as WAY-316606 also worked to damp down the actions of SFRP1. To see if it might thus also promote hair growth, the researchers sourced follicles donated by 40 patients at a nearby baldness clinic, and went to work.
The results were encouraging. WAY-316606 induced hair growth at the same, or better, magnitude as CsA, but is a completely unrelated, and far less unpleasant, chemical compound.
Hawkshaw says that one day the osteoporosis med might be refashioned into a hair-growth drug that is more effective, and has fewer downsides, than the two existing treatments, minoxidil and finasteride.
“The fact that this new agent, which had never even been considered in a hair loss context, promotes human hair growth is exciting because of its translational potential,” he says.
“It could one day make a real difference to people who suffer from hair loss.”
However, he adds that the research is still very much in its early stages, and clinical trials have yet to be conducted.