Unsightly moles could offer a possible avenue for treating hair loss, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature.
For nearly a decade, scientists at the University of California at Irvine have been studying moles to understand why they produce such long hairs. Their new paper shows that these moles contain particular molecules that promote hair growth.
“Nature has given us clues about these hairy moles,” said Maksim Plikus, the study’s lead author and professor of developmental and cell biology at UC, Irvine.
People normally lose between 50 and 100 hairs a day and then generate new hair from the stem cells in the hair follicles. But in people with pattern baldness or pattern baldness — what doctors call alopecia or androgenic alopecia — the stem cells are dormant, so new hair can’t grow.
In experiments involving mice, Plikus and his research team demonstrated that a molecule called osteopontin, which is particularly important in hairy moles, could activate previously dormant hair follicle stem cells.
The researchers tested this by grafting samples of human skin onto mice, then giving the animals three injections of the molecule, one day apart. Within days, the injections helped the mice grow new hair about 1 centimeter in length.
To verify that osteopontin was responsible for hair growth, the researchers also injected a neutral protein into a different site on the skin, but this injection site did not cause new hair to grow.
Plikus said that unlike studies that focus on mouse fur, his findings are more applicable to humans because the experiment used human skin samples and tested a molecule found in human moles.
“The mechanism they identify in mice seemed to be applicable to understanding hair follicle growth in humans. This is a remarkable part of the study,” said Mayumi Ito, professor of dermatology and cell biology at NYU Langone Health, which was not involved in the research.
Plikus hopes his research could eventually lead to an outpatient procedure to promote hair growth — perhaps performed in a dermatologist’s office, similar to a cosmetic procedure like Botox. The molecule would take the form of a gel and be injected or administered through a process called microneedling, which rolls tiny needles over the skin, he said.
In theory, Plikus says, people could then see their natural hair grow back the way it did before they went bald.
“Your pre-existing dormant hair follicles will wake up and they’ll start growing again,” Plikus said. “Once they start growing, they’ll naturally produce hair that has qualities you remember when you were 18. It’ll be the same thickness, the same length. It’ll be straight or curly.”
Plikus is the co-founder of Amplifica, a biotech company that clears his research and moves it into clinical trials. Launched in 2019, the company plans to begin its first-in-human trial in the coming months to test the safety of a compound designed to deliver osteopontin to the body. The compound will be administered by injections into the scalp, according to Frank Fazio, CEO of Amplifica.
The company also plans to conduct a subsequent trial to assess the safety of a synthetic version of osteopontin.
“We will definitely be studying both men and women throughout our clinical program,” Fazio said.
“We have treatments, but we don’t have solutions”
The Food and Drug Administration has approved two treatments for hair loss: drugs commonly sold under the brand names Propecia and Rogaine. Propecia is a prescription pill, while Rogaine is a liquid or foam applied directly to the skin.
Both were approved decades ago, although Propecia is not approved for use in women. And both have side effects: Rogaine can cause skin irritation or unwanted facial hair, and Propecia can cause erectile dysfunction or decreased sex drive.
Neither drug is fully effective in restoring hair loss.
“We have treatments, but we don’t have solutions,” said Dr. Jeremy Green, board-certified dermatologist in Miami and consultant for Amplifica.
In his practice, Green said, he often sees women in their 30s and 40s with thinning hair and men in their late teens or early 20s with thinning hair.
“It’s going to be students coming in and saying, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on? I don’t want to look like my dad,'” he said.
Green said he often prescribes topical treatments like Rogaine first, then — depending on results or patient preference — switches to Propecia or its generic forms. From there, he said, the options become more invasive and include hair transplants or a method called platelet-rich plasma therapy, which injects blood cells into the scalp.
Hair transplants are very effective, Green said, but can be expensive and require a full-day procedure.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a slam dunk for everyone, and that’s why you still see people walking around with alopecia,” he said.
The molecular injection Amplifica is being developed, Green noted, may not work for hair loss caused by medical conditions such as thyroid disorders. Still, he hopes the injection could benefit many patients with bald or thinning hair.
“Patients are willing to fly over half the planet to get hair transplants and do other things, so the demand is definitely high,” he said.