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, says Oliver, the cycle is different. “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 behaviour 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 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.”