Scientists have discovered a gene that causes a rare and extreme form of hair loss – a finding they say could one day point to better remedies for common hereditary baldness.

Researchers found the gene – appropriately named “hairless” – by studying a Pakistani family plagued for generations by an inherited form of alopecia universalis.

Sufferers are born without eyelashes or eyebrows, quickly lose the hair on top of the head and never grow any body hair.

Alopecia universalis is a far cry from the more common baldness that sends millions of men racing for hair-growth drugs or toupees.

But because the hairless gene regulates the same hair follicle, and appears to switch on other hair-related genes, it provides a vital clue to understanding hair growth and loss.

That’s according to lead researcher Angela Christiano of Columbia University in New York.

Scientists discovered that the gene that causes baldness in mice matches the same gene in humans.

It is the first time scientists have discovered a human gene associated with hair loss.

The new discovery is not a cure in itself, but it could be the first small step towards understanding what causes hair loss which could eventually lead to a permanent cure.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
“Who will it benefit? I think it will benefit in the long term, again years away, anyone that has any type of hair disorder will benefit from the understanding of the genetic basis of these things. Who’s treated first? I think it remains to be seen. But certainly a genetic understanding of a human health problem is something that’s been a long time coming for the hair cycle research and I think will provide us with insights that we can only hope to appreciate.”
SUPER CAPTION: Angela Christiano, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Columbia University

Christiano began her hunt in a large Pakistani family that had inherited alopecia universalis – the rarest and most extreme form of hair loss – that struck at least five generations, including seven still-living patients.

But scientists are urging caution, saying that although the latest development is a huge discovery, a cure for baldness was still some way away.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
“The potential impact is enormous but right now we’ve just taken the first tiny step toward understanding this process. I think the excitement that attends to this relates to the fact that for the first time we have specific information about a control factor that regulates hair growth. We’ve never had that before.”
SUPER CAPTION: David Bickers, M.D., Department of Dermatology, Columbia University

The Columbia scientists doubt that a cure will emerge until doctors find where all baldness genes reside on human chromosomes.

Treatments which focus on hormonal regulation to regrow hair and which carries possible side effects are the only hope to limit hair loss offered at the moment.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
“These are treatments, these are not cures. And the difference between a treatment and a cure is that in order to cure a genetic process such as this we need to study the genes themselves. This “gene hairless” for the first time gives us a foothold into understanding the genes that drive the human hair cycle.”
SUPER CAPTION: Angela Christiano, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Columbia University

Scientists remain cautious about when and how a cure for balding will be found.

But their enthusiasm was obvious when they talked about their discovery to the press.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
“When Angela came two years ago I had no idea we would be sitting here talking about a gene for hair. I will tell you that I would be delighted to be a test subject, for the first product that’s evaluated.”

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