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Scientists say that a type of injection may help solve hair loss. MoMo Productions/Getty Images
  • Researchers of a new study say they may be on the path towards finding a molecular therapy to combat male or female pattern hair loss.
  • Researchers found that there may be a process found in hairy moles that can help stimulate hair growth in people who have lost their hair.
  • More study is needed as early research has been in mice.

In the United States, about 80% of men and near 50% of women experience significant hair loss over the course of their lifetime, reports NYU Langone Health.

Now new research out of the University of California, Irvine might pave the way for future advanced therapies to combat hair loss.

Researchers examined the molecular mechanisms for hair growth stimulation in order to look for answers. In a study they suggest that their research may result in a relatively pain-free, Botox-like micro-needling technique that could be a hair loss game changer.

This new study was published in the journal Nature, detailing the process behind how aging pigment-generating cells in one’s skin actually result in hair growth within — nevi — or skin moles. The researchers describe that by better understanding the hair growth process within these specific moles, we could pave the way for molecular therapies for androgenetic alopecia, commonly known as male or female pattern baldness.

For this study, researchers looked at mice who possessed pigmented skin spots that showed signs of accelerated hair growth, not unlike what has been seen in human hairy skin moles, according to a statement.

In particular, the team looked at how certain signaling molecules impacted stem cells to lead to hair growth.

In these mice the aged, or senescent, pigment cells were seen to produce high amounts of osteopontin, a signaling molecule, which corresponds to CD44, a matching receptor molecule that the rodents’ nearby hair stem cells possessed.

Interactions between osteopontin and CD44 seemed to activate the hair stem cells, resulting in the generation of hairs.

The mice that possessed either the signaling molecule or receptor molecules were also studied to offer a control group. Slower hair growth was seen in the mice that lacked either one of these genes. The researchers say osteopontin’s role in hair growth has also been evidenced by way of nevi, or hairy mole samples, in humans.

When asked what his impressions were from reviewing the final data from this research, lead study author Maksim Plikus, PhD, told Healthline that it all goes back to the “so-called senescent cells,” or the “aged cells.” He explained that at the core of this research is the reality that these cells “can exert prominent growth-promoting effects on tissue’s stem cells.”

“Hair growing out of nevus skin often look ‘youthful,’ long and thick despite the fact that skin moles are jam-packed with ‘aged’ pigment-making cells, called senescent melanocytes. If one would follow conventional logic that senescent cells are the cause of tissue aging, then mole skin should be particularly ‘old’ — yet, what we see is vigorous, ‘rejuvenated’ hair growth,” Plikus said.

He added that to understand this reality that is somewhat counterintuitive to what we may expect of “old” cells, you have to take into account that compared to youthful cells, senescent cells stop dividing and remain at an idle state in tissues, often for decades at a time “without meaningfully contributing to tissue renewal by making new cells.”

Plikus said senescent cells pose little harm, and are actually well known for “producing an entire constellation” of signaling molecules, which can bind to surfaces of other cells and modulate their behavior. He said that in some cases these senescent cell-produced molecules can bind to and trigger a body’s immune cells.

This plays a role in aging research, since he said “it has long been believed that exposure to senescent cell-secreted molecules is not very healthy for tissues as it inappropriately prompts their immune cells, which ultimately promotes tissue decline.”

With all that in mind, he was struck by the fact that this new research shows “a surprisingly positive effect” of these signaling molecules created by these cells in skin moles on the hair follicle stem cells that rest close by. For cells associated with “aging,” he said it was remarkable that they played a role of potently triggering new hair growth by way of the osteopontin molecule.

“Osteopontin from senescent cells acts directly on hair follicle stem cells via its molecular receptor, called CD44, and it is the molecular interaction between the two genes that triggers new hair growth,” Plikus said. “Binding of osteopontin to CD44 on the surface of hair follicle stem cells, sets off a molecular chain reaction in the latter — it induces changes in their gene expression and this, in turn, results in their activation. Hair follicle stem cells exit dormancy and start dividing and this initiates new hair growth.”

Plikus said osteopontin is “inherently a large-size protein” and can’t penetrate intact skin when applied topically. As a result, a product based off this research would need to be micro-delivered “at a shallow depth of about 1 mm,” he explained.

“This is an approximate depth at which normal hair follicle stem cells reside,” he said. “Such micro-delivery can be done via a form of microneedling technique. We envision this will be a quick, near pain-free procedure, whereas scalp skin is treated with micro-needles that efficiently deliver small amounts of molecules such as osteopontin approximately 1 mm deep.”

In recent years hair growth research has made headlines. Like Plikus’s work, sometimes these methods might come from unexpected places.

A 2022 review examined the role that platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections—normally to treat thrombocytopenia, a condition in which the platelet levels in your blood is too low—has been seen as an effective hair loss treatment. Recently, hair loss treatment news has been abundant from word of a new product available in Europe based on RNA technology to research that underscores how microRNA could assist in hair regrowth.

In late June, biopharmaceutical company Amplifica — co-founded by Plikus and based off his molecular research — announced the first in-human study of AMP-303, a compound that will be used to treat androgenetic alopecia, but doesn’t rely on osteopontin.

Osteopontin is part of a separate compound being developed by the company, known as AMP-303, according to its website.

Amplifica was founded in 2019. Frank Fazio, Amplifica’s president and CEO, told Healthline that he and his team “was very impressed with the early data” from Plikus’s lab, realizing its “future potential.”

When asked what impact technology that could make its way from Plikus’s lab to your dermatologist’s office could have, Fazio said he views it as having a “disruptive effect.”

“At present, the field is ripe for innovation, for a new compound that acts on hair follicle stem cells, re-awakening them for new hair growth. A compound that can achieve such an effect and does not need to be given very often can transform the market,” Fazio added. “The market is currently dominated by costly and invasive hair transplantation surgery and daily medicines—finasteride and minoxidil, both of which have issues with long-term compliance, and side effects.”

Fazio said he and his team are encouraged by the data that suggests AMP-303 will work for both men and women. The first subject started the treatment on June 27, 2023 and the study is expected to finish in 2024’s first quarter, according to the company’s press release.

“People should be excited about the research findings but understand that additional clinical studies are required to further evaluate these findings in humans. Amplifica just announced our first in-human study focused on the safety and tolerability of its AMP-303—polysaccharide-based compound— a different compound we are studying,” Fazio added. “This study will serve as a strong foundation for subsequent clinical studies with Amplifica’s pipeline, and help us better determine what these potential new hair loss therapies could look like.”

Plikus has multiple projects cooking at once. He said all of this research can play a role in a range of new hair loss treatment innovations.

“Similar to modern digital locks that can be opened with not just one but several key codes, CD44 can interact with and become triggered by more than just osteopontin,” he explained. “Right now we are continuing to evaluate other CD44-binding factors for their ability to trigger hair growth. In parallel, we are also looking at other signaling molecules that senescent melanocytes produce in nevus skin. We are evaluating them for possible hair growth-promoting effect as well.”

In a new study, researchers published findings that could pave the way for molecular therapies for androgenetic alopecia, commonly known as male or female pattern baldness. The team looked at the molecular processes of hair growth processes within specific moles. Their findings suggest they may be able to combat hair loss with a relatively pain-free, Botox-like micro-needling technique.