We Can Cure Cancer — Why Not Baldness?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because more hair means more success.
Every morning, Matthew Jones stands in front of the mirror, examines his hairline and then swallows a dutasteride pill he purchased online. Twice a week, he carefully parts his hair so the chemicals in Rogaine foam reach his scalp. And then once a week he shampoos with Nizoral. The 37-year-old Jones (not his real name) has been finessing this routine since his early 20s, when he first noticed his hair loss, which is genetic, not stress-related. He’s had some regrowth but can’t be sure how much. One thing is certain, though: To keep what he’s got, he’ll need to follow at least the Rogaine part of this routine for the rest of his life.
These days, a luxuriant male coif signifies success — just ask the academics. Research published in the Sage journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and studies from Johns Hopkins and elsewhere show that people with good hair get paid better and are seen as more assertive, attractive and accomplished. With two-thirds of men receding by age 35, however, even the Prince Charming blessed have a limited window. And the current drugs to keep that window open are few and dated: Topical minoxidil, the active ingredient in Rogaine, was approved in 1988; finasteride (Propecia) in 1997; and spironolactone (prescribed off-label) in 1959. Hence, the latest round of hair-loss solutions to ogle potentially hair-raising profits. The global market is projected to hit $2.7 billion in 2017, a 35 percent rise since 2010, according to the research company Statista. Breaking this down, hair-restoration surgical operations rose 57 percent from 2010 to 2014, and more than 3 percent of all U.S. households use a hair-loss product.
When something is scientifically valid, it’s almost never touted as a wonder drug. Doctors by nature are cautious.
—Dr. Sara Wasserbauer, California-based hair surgeon
With all that money on the table, more than 55 labs around the globe are experimenting with solutions that range from stem cells and bioprinting to hair cloning and robotic transplants. The San Diego–based biotech company Samumed has been getting a lot of attention for its hair-loss drug, the evocatively named SM04554, a topical solution that targets the same genes that control fetal growth. Zap the right gene the right way, and you feasibly can regrow hair. Since 2008, the firm has raised $220 million and has set its sights on a valuation of $12 billion. (Its market cap currently is $6 billion.) Hong Kong–based Pineworld Capital has invested $6 million in Histogen, another regenerative medical company based in San Diego. It markets an injectable neonatal-cell scalp treatment that is slated to go on the market in China next year. The Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido has invested an undisclosed amount since 2013 in a partnership with RepliCel Life Sciences, a stem-cell research outfit. RepliCel Life Sciences plans to launch a $1,000 treatment by 2018, most likely in the form of topical dermal injectors. Bald = big business, and the clock is counting down till the cure is found.
For sufferers, no price is too high. “Ninety-five percent of us care about appearances,” says Jones, a part-time Uber driver in Seattle who founded the website hairlosscure2020 in 2013 to provide fellow sufferers with reliable information on hair loss. Being able to evaluate info is important: Plenty of scammers seek out the desperate and promise them cures. “There are pop-up menus that say things like XX drug will make you impotent,” says Dr. Sara Wasserbauer, a California-based hair surgeon and representative of the nonprofit International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, referring to disreputable companies that lie about the side effects of competitors’ products. Wasserbauer says some so-called wonder drugs have potential for hair restoration, but she emphasizes that definitive results still are a significant way off. “When something is scientifically valid, it’s almost never touted as a wonder drug,” she tells OZY. “Doctors by nature are cautious.”
As for Jones’ medications, dutasteride is the active ingredient in Avodart, a medication for men with enlarged prostates, while the active ingredient in Nizoral is a dandruff-fighting antifungal. Both drugs showed some hair-restoration properties in a few contested clinical trials. For Wasserbauer, the current gold standard is platelet-rich plasma (PRP), in which a patient’s blood is centrifuged to concentrate plasma that contains growth-stimulating proteins and then injected into the scalp. Some call it the vampire hair lift. But it’s an imperfect science. “It does a beautiful job 60 to 80 percent of the time,” she says.
Then there are new product lines, such as évolis, which was launched in November 2016 by Cellmid, an Australian life-sciences company. The évolis shampoos and sprays are infused with natural extracts that allegedly inhibit the growth of scalp proteins restricting hair growth. The company announced sales of more than $1 million in Q1 2017. “Évolis has created a formula backed by science and powered by nature,” says Kerry Yates, cofounder of Colour Collective, the U.S. distributor of the products. Yates knows gaining traction will be challenging; she blames other companies’ underperforming products for consumers’ skepticism of new brands.
Three Cellmid-sponsored studies have shown promise, but they’re on the small side — a total of 82 participants in two studies that tested the products and an additional 39 volunteers in a third study giving the magic ingredient a workout. Yates also directs me to enthusiastic patient testimonials — but Wasserbauer looks at science, not stories. “A caveat: When I started doing this for a living, people would talk about stem-cell therapy as if [it were] five to 10 years down the line,” she says. “I’ve been in the field 20 years, and they still say five to 10 years.”