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.
“Provillus was 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 the 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.