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Gone today, hair tomorrow

In the high-tech battle against baldness, saving or moving hair isn't enough. Scientists aim to grow it from scratch.

April 17, 2006|Eric D. Tytell | Special to The Times

OIL of wormwood.

Dog urine.

Equal parts Abyssinian greyhound's heel, date blossoms and ass hoof, boiled in oil.

Being licked by a cow.

Through the centuries, men losing their hair have resorted to desperate measures to recover the luxurious tresses of their youth -- but happily, their options have expanded substantially beyond dog urine. Now there are sophisticated transplant techniques and drugs shown by science to be more than mere snake oil.

And more is still to come. Higher-tech remedies are being cooked up in the clinic -- ones that may solve the shortcomings of today's solutions, which for the most part just save hairs that already exist or move them around on the scalp.

Researchers are beginning to understand the biological nuts and bolts of why hair grows and stops growing. They're looking forward to the day when they can remove a few hairs, multiply them in a lab and completely fill in a bald spot -- or slap on creams that can stop and start hair growth whenever and wherever they like.

"I think, ultimately, we will find a way to take a single follicle and clone it, to re-create it in a petri dish -- and that solves all of our problems," says Dr. Claire Haycox, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

A deeper function

Hair serves no fundamental biological purpose. It doesn't keep us warm, pad our heads particularly well or shield us effectively from the sun. But prosaic mechanics can't encapsulate the huge role hair plays in the human psyche. From ancient times, hair has symbolized strength and beauty.

"Golden-haired Achilles" was the greatest warrior in Homer's "Iliad."

Samson's long hair made him invincible. "If I be shaven," he says in Judges 16:17, "then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man."

And in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Bassanio describes the hair of his love, Portia, as "A golden mesh to entrap the hearts of men/Faster than gnats in cobwebs."

Shakespeare and Homer understood a subtle biological truth: When we look for a mate, we unconsciously seek signals of that person's health, the better to produce robust offspring. A full head of lustrous hair, in man or woman, is a reliable sign of vigor and good nutrition -- in evolutionary terms, of a better mate. So when hair starts disappearing, it's not surprising that the loss can be traumatic.

Typically, men start losing their hair in their 20s and 30s. Twelve percent of men have lost most of it before their 30th birthday. By age 50, more than half have developed a bald spot and receding hairline.

Most men try to shrug it off, says Dr. Craig Ziering, a cosmetic surgeon in Beverly Hills. After all, they're men -- they don't want to think about their feelings, or heaven forbid, reveal them.

Ziering's patients tend to be ambitious businessmen, actors and celebrities. They're looking for a competitive edge and they worry that their hair loss works against them. "You go back to that hunter mentality," he says. "It's the competition for women or a job."

Once they take the step of seeking treatment, the relief, he says, is palpable.

Rick Juel, a fitness trainer and massage therapist in San Pedro, was surprised by his own reaction. "I told myself that if I went bald or thinned as I got older, it wouldn't matter to me -- I would let life and age happen," he says. "But then, when it actually happens, you get a different take on it."

He'd flinch at the snapshots taken by his buddy during camping and scuba-diving vacations. "If he caught me with the camera the wrong way it would look like I was his father or something," he says. "Looking through the pictures, I'd say, 'Get rid of this old-man shot!' "

After a while, he thought: Why should he put up with this? "I always try to improve myself spiritually and mentally and physically. So I thought, why stop with that? Why not try to continue to grow, or continue to improve -- even in my appearance?"

Cycles of the scalp

The cause of balding lies within the hair follicle, a microscopic pocket in the skin. Hair sprouts from this pocket, journeying through four distinct seasons -- growth, regression, rest and shedding.

In the growth phase, the hair shaft lengthens. Then the follicle begins to shrink: the regression phase. Next comes rest: The remains of the follicle hang on to the dead hair. Finally, it sheds the old hair in preparation for growing a new one.

Hairs on the scalp may stay in the growth phase for years before moving through regression, rest and shedding, which is why hairs can grow so long. They grow, at least, until testosterone kicks in. Men appreciate most of testosterone's effects: the beard, bulging biceps, square manly jaw. The gleaming bald dome is less well-liked.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates noted the link between testosterone and hair loss: He observed that castrated men, who don't make the hormone, didn't go bald.

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