Once hair follicles have died, they can usually no longer be saved. Researchers are now giving hope to those affected by hair loss: a new active ingredient should soon be able to stimulate dead hair follicles again.

Hair loss affects more and more people. It is estimated that around 40 percent of all men and 20 percent of all women in Germany are affected by hereditary hair loss. Diseases can also be the cause of hair loss. The best known: alopecia areata.

In Germany alone, more than a million people suffer from circular hair loss. So far, there is no cure for this insidious autoimmune disease. The level of suffering for those affected is immense.

For a long time, researchers have been trying to develop a drug that not only stops hair loss, but also largely reverses it – that is, dead hair follicles are stimulated so that bald spots can grow back. New findings from a study by the University of California now give those affected hope.

Through research, the team has identified a protein in the hair follicle that may soon be able to heal hair loss at the roots. The molecule called “SCUBE3” is said to be able to stimulate dead hair follicles again – at least that is what tests carried out as part of the research work on genetically modified mice without fur show.

Dermal papilla cells regulate the formation of hair follicles in the skin and thus control the hair growth cycle. They are already being used in hair transplants, where existing dermal papilla cells are taken from an affected person, cultivated in the laboratory and transplanted back into bald areas of the head.

The researchers explain how the protein works with the help of an illustration: According to this, the system of the hair follicles resembles a gigantic factory with 3D printers. All follicles on the scalp are constantly “pressing” to guarantee a full head of hair.

In the case of hereditary, hormonal or disease-related hair loss, the follicles are “shut down”. This leads to irreversible hair loss and balding. However, as the researchers explain, the newly discovered protein “SCUBE3” can reactivate the stem cells on the scalp so that the “silent” hair follicles can resume their work.

The identification of the protein is a milestone for the researchers. Although there is still a long way to go before a suitable drug based on “SCUBE3” can be developed, the knowledge forms the basis for future treatment methods for chronic hair loss.

Maria Kasper, Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, also considers the development of a suitable medicinal method using the new findings to be realistic. However, it is still too early to be able to make precise statements about the success of the treatment. The expert sees a possible advantage of the treatment in the costs, which will be significantly lower than with a hair transplant. The disadvantage: the treatment would have to be repeated two to three times a year to guarantee constant hair growth.

According to Kasper, the process is similar to a method already developed by Turn Biotechnologies, a cell rejuvenation company. The company recently developed a novel mRNA drug to cure untreatable age-related diseases such as hair loss. A method is currently being worked on that sends genetic instructions to cells to stimulate growth processes.

The active ingredient is “TRN-001”, a molecule that stimulates dead hair follicles in the form of liquid nanoparticles during the treatment and thus rejuvenates them. “I would be more than happy if I had my hair back like it was when I was 30,” says co-founder and scientist Vittorio Sebastiano, describing the method in one sentence. It is scheduled to be tested on humans for the first time in 2024.

According to Kasper, however, further scientific studies are necessary in order to be able to fully help people with irreversible hair loss in the future. An important step are studies that investigate how new hair follicles can be generated in the scalp itself. Because in people with severe burns, wounds or scarred alopecia, there are usually only a few follicles left that can be stimulated.

The new findings on “SCUBE3” can nevertheless be described as a milestone in the treatment of hair loss. So far, approved drugs against hair loss such as finasteride or minoxidil have only had an insufficient effect. In addition, they must be taken daily and can have numerous side effects such as depression or a decrease in libido.

The alternative – a hair transplant – is usually extremely expensive, is surgical and can also have side effects: For example, the hair transplants do not grow, are pushed out or pulled out, the scalp becomes inflamed, the tissue scars due to being placed too densely or nodules form. Those affected are usually powerless when it comes to hair loss.