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A cure for baldness? It's just a hair's breadth away

Doctors all over the world are fighting to find a way to stop men from losing their hair, writes David Robbins

Men are very poor judges of their own hair. Where there is thinness, they see abundance. Where there are wisps, they see luxuriant locks.

Several years ago, I noticed my hairline was receding. It was like a tide slowly ebbing, leaving a small island of hair at the front.

The next time I went to the barber, I asked him to give me a number two blade all over. I expected him to say I was being hasty, that I had years to go before I had to do that.

What he actually said was: "I thought you'd never ask."

I can't say it was very traumatic. Several people told me I looked better bald. And now, if my wife sees an old photo of me with my 1980s bouffant, she becomes helpless with mirth.

There is a famous sign in Dublin's city centre. In fact, it's so famous, they started a campaign to have it listed as a protected structure. It says, in yellow neon letters: "Why go bald?"

Why indeed? It's a question most men will ask at some point. Nearly 70pc of men experience baldness by the time they reach 80.

The good news is that new research in Japan, France and the US has moved closer to the goal of "curing" male baldness.

Dr George Cotsarelis, head of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently announced he was in talks with pharmaceutical companies about making a drug to block an enzyme he believes causes baldness.

The enzyme, prostaglandin D2, was identified in a research paper in February as instructing follicles to stop the production of hair. But his laboratory is not the only one racing for a cure.

In June, Dr Bruno Bernard of L'Oréal said he and his team had discovered that thinning hair is often due to follicles being in a "dormant" phase.

It is all to do with the level of oxygen around stem cells called CD34+ cells. He thinks that by targeting these cells he can awaken them.

Meanwhile in Japan, a hairless mouse was given a stem-cell treatment to transplant hair follicles on its head from a hairy mouse.

This breakthrough could mean that follicles might be grown in a lab and then transplanted on to the head.

But even without these research advances, the baldy of today is still pretty well catered for. There is more money being spent researching baldness cures than on trying find a cure for malaria, as Microsoft founder Bill Gates pointed out recently.

"Now baldness is a terrible thing," he said, before pointing out the reason the pharmaceutical industry is so interested in the area, "and rich men are afflicted by it."

Baldness is caused when the body produces too much dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which in turn produces androgens which cause the follicles on the top of the head to shrink and die. By the age of 50, about 40pc of men have some baldness.

"About 95pc of male pattern baldness is hereditary," says Philip Kingsley, chairman of the Institute of Trichology, "although recent research shows that genetic hair loss can be brought on earlier by emotional stress."

Baldness has its own scale, just like earthquakes or wind speed. It's called the Norwood scale: a one on the Norwood is a slight receding at the temples, while a seven is Michael Noonan territory.

The idea of a magic pill that could stop the balding process is something many men would pay for. Already, many are paying up to €20,000 for existing treatments.

These fall into three basic categories: hair 'systems' (basically, wigs), drugs (finasteride, used in Propecia, and minoxidil, the active ingredient in Regaine or Rogaine), and transplants.

Finasteride is taken in pill form and works by preventing the formation of DHT in the scalp and works for about 50pc of patients; minoxydil is a gel or foam which is rubbed into the scalp.

Some 85pc of men see some regrowth, but how it works is not precisely known.

Both these treatments have to be used continuously, but they can be undertaken at any age. New treatments include the HairMax Lasercomb, a kind of electric hairbrush that stimulates the follicles and has just been licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration, and botox, which has been shown to promote regrowth.

There are also many vitamin supplements (mostly iron and zinc) and patent lotions ranging from stinging nettle to shark cartilage, but trichologists are quick to warn against the many "snake oil salesmen" out there.

However, more and more men are trying transplants, either FUE (Follicular Unit Extraction) or FUT (Follicular Unit Transplant).

FUE is very painstaking, transferring two or three follicles at a time from the side or back of the scalp to the top.

Men who are balding, thinning or merely receding will be watching these new developments with interest. They will be hoping that it may be a case of "gone today, hair tomorrow".