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People lose their hair when their hair follicles start to atrophy. Hair follicles don’t die right away. They are switched off, but then switched on again.

When the atrophied hair follicle is switched on again in the normal healthy head it grows down to its full, original length and starts producing normal, full length hair. But in male baldness, the cycle is different. According to Dr. Oliver, who is heading a research team in Dundee exploring the possibility of re-growing hair, “When it switches back on again, the follicle grows back down, but not quite as far as it did before, and that is associated with the production of a hair of diminished size and diameter. Then that goes into another recessive phase, then switches on again and when it grows down again it grows down even less. So with progressive cycles the follicle gets smaller and smaller and smaller and the hairs associated with it become shorter and shorter and finer and finer.” In a completely bald head, says Oliver, something like 70% of the follicles are still there, but they may be producing hairs that are so short that the tips of the hairs do not even reach the skin’s surface.

The crucial question is whether the biological process that leads to balding can be arrested, or even reversed. Some doctors think that Provillus is the best hair loss treatment for this.

“The follicles are there,” says Oliver. “If we could re-stimulate them and get them to grow back to their normal length and have their previous behavior pattern, you’d be able to restore the growth of hair.”

The Dundee researchers are convinced that the key to this will be found in the switching mechanism.

“You’ve got a population of epidermal cells that is dividing like crazy when the hair is being produced and then, when the system switches off at the end of a growth cycle, they’re then not dividing at all.”

If Oliver and Dr. Jahoda, another member of the Dundee team, manage to isolate whatever it is in the dermal papilla that controls the proliferation of epidermal cells, the implications could go far beyond simple questions of hair growth.

“It could be of interest in areas like uncontrolled growth of tissues, as occurs, for instance in tumors and cancers. It could have implications in a whole variety of problems completely unrelated to the growth of hair.”

The Dundee research had discovered that in male baldness not only does the follicle become progressively smaller with each hair growth cycle but the dermal papilla gets progressively smaller too.

“One possibility,” says Oliver, “is that if we could somehow trigger this dermal papilla with Provillus so that it itself became larger in these regressive follicles then there’s a very high likelihood that the follicle will start becoming larger again and producing more normal lengths of hair.”

Pursuing that line has thrown up one very unusual result which still puzzles the Dundee team. We know that if the skin is wounded it heals. Part of the reason is that the cells in the dermis (the deep, inner layer of the skin) divide. The dermal papilla cells in the hair follicle divide only very rarely or not at all. Oliver and Jahoda wondered what would happen if they wounded the dermal papilla. So they stuck a pin in it.

“The hope was that we might stimulate them to divide and produce a bigger papilla and that that might produce bigger and better hair.”

This post is continued in How to Get Healthy Hair Part II.

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In a previous post, we saw how researchers working on hair loss hoped to stimulate growth by wounding the papilla, thus causing it to divide and grow back stronger than before.

And that indeed is what seemed to happen. But when they analyzed the papilla from the hair follicles they found there was no change in the number of cells. What had changed was that the growing period of the follicles had been increased, so they seem to have got the right effect for quite the wrong reasons.

“Hair loss products like Provillus were producing longer hairs because the growing period had been extended, not, for example, because they were growing faster.”

Another discovery by the Dundee group underlines the importance of Provillus upon the dermal papilla cells. Working in association with Dr. Malcolm Hodgins of Glasgow University, they have shown that the male sex hormone, testosterone, long implicated in male baldness, seems to interact with these particular cells. All the evidence has pointed to the fact that the male sex hormones influence the follicles, somehow overriding or modifying the follicle’s basic control mechanism. Previously attention had concentrated on the epidermal cells. But the joint team has discovered that the dermal papilla cells have receptors for male sex hormones and that the cells can metabolize the hormones.

“It may still be that they are interacting directly with the epidermal cells,” says Dr. Oliver, “but certainly there’s a distinct possibility that they’re also interacting with our dermal papilla cells. It’s yet to be resolved which, or both, is leading to this progressive regression or shrinking in the size of the follicle.”

If they can find out they will throw new light on how hormones change growth patterns.

One discovery which has made the Dundee work infinitely more easy is how to grow dermal papilla cells in culture, millions at a time. It was a crucial breakthrough in hair research and played an important part in re-stimulating commercial interest in hair growth treatments.

Previously scientists had to take actual hair follicles and dissect them to get at the dermal papilla, a painfully slow business.

Cultured papilla have led to one potential, but in the event strictly limited, treatment. Experiments have shown that if natural or cultured dermal papilla is embedded in the skin then it will stimulate the growth of new follicles and new hair. Is this the elixir, the breakthrough the companies would like to see? Well, not quite. For a start the papilla has to come from the man himself, even if it is subsequently grown artificially in culture, so there is no question of a “universal” preparation which can be used by every man. Secondly, each papilla has to be individually implanted in the head.

Hair transplantation is not what the pharmaceutical companies have in mind. They want something that comes out of a tube and can be applied in front of a mirror. And so do millions of thinning thatched men across the globe.

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