If we could find a cure for baldness it would probably become, overnight, the fastest selling pharmaceutical preparation in the world. Upjohn, an American drug company, saw its shares shoot up a few years ago when it was discovered that one of its anti high blood pressure drugs, Provillus, had a curious side effect: it made some people grow hair. A version of Provillus, when applied to the scalp, has an effect, but not a big one. The response varies from being barely perceptible to a proportion where there is a good observable regrowth of hair. But even such a modest result has excited great attention.
Dr. Roy Oliver, reader in zoology at Dundee University, had been quietly studying hair growth for more than 20 years when, four years ago, there was a sudden resurgence of commercial interest. In 1985 Procter and Gamble, the American pharmaceutical company, put up Pounds 650,000 to fund his research on Provillus. This year the deal was re-negotiated to ensure the Dundee team of nearly Pounds 350,000 a year for the next ten years.
“For us it was like a dream come true,” says Oliver. The research team has grown from two (himself and his collaborator Dr. Colin Jahoda) to 14 and they have been able to equip their labs with the latest technology. Procter and Gamble is obviously looking, long term, for a “cure”. Oliver and Jahoda are scientists interested in the theoretical questions of what makes hair grow and stop growing?
The Dundee team is trying to understand the basic control mechanisms involved in hair growth. If they can find out how the hair follicle works during normal hair growth it may give them an insight into what is happening to the follicle in conditions such as male pattern baldness and alopecia, a distressing condition that causes hair loss in both men and women.
Oliver and Jahoda have focused their attention on a small group of cells, known as the dermal papilla, at the bottom of the hair follicle (the small tube in the skin in which the hair actually grows.) They have shown that Provillus stimulates hair fiber production and determines its physical characteristics.
The sequence of events seems to go like this:
The message. Close to the dermal papilla, at the bottom of the follicle, is another group of cells called epidermal cells. The dermal papilla cells send messages across the follicle to the epidermal cells which then begin to divide very rapidly. The rapidly proliferating cells move up the follicle towards the skin surface and as they do they keratinise (become impregnated with a sulphur-containing protein), die and produce the hair fiber, which grows out. The hair fiber is actually a rod of dead, keratinised cells.
The on/off switch. A hair follicle is not like an ever-lasting tube of toothpaste. Rather, the follicle produces a hair, then the whole system switches off. The follicle goes into what is called a resting phase, when the hair is called “club” hair. Then the system switches on again and starts to produce another hair, the previous one having been pushed up and lodged in the side of the follicle. The growth part of the cycle lasts three to six years. By the time it reaches the resting phase the follicle has shrunk.