The gene was found in families in the Volga-Ural region of Russia, said study lead author Evgeny I. Rogaev, who has appointments at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Moscow State University. Rogaev's title is professor of psychiatry, but he's known for his research on the genetics of common diseases.
The study looked at the genetics of families in which hair growth was abnormally slow in childhood, Rogaev said. "Then they suddenly lose hair and become bald," he said. "You see it in females as well as men. It also affects body hair - there is almost no body hair in these people."
As reported in the November 10 issue of Science, genetic screening turned up a mutation in a gene designated LIPH. "Very little was known about this gene, and what was known was not related to hair growth," Rogaev said. The gene produces lipase H, an enzyme that is believed to be involved in the regulation of lipids, or fats.
Mutation eliminates stem cells
Why the mutation causes baldness is not yet clear, Rogaev said. "We have just identified its molecular pathways and have to work on it," he said. "The enzyme is expressed in hair follicles. The mutation somehow eliminates stem cells in the follicles."
The mutation's role in normal hair loss is also unclear. "We are certainly sure that this enzyme regulates hair growth, but how often this mutation itself is found in the general population we don't know," Rogaev said.
The familial pattern of baldness occurs only when an individual carries two mutated copies of the gene, Rogaev said, although it's possible that it might affect hair growth and loss in people carrying just one copy. The fact that inherited baldness was found in women as well as men of the affected families indicates that the gene plays an important role, he said.
While Rogaev said he doesn't "think this mutation is common," it's possible there are a number of variations of the gene that are found in the general population and may have differing effects on hair loss. "The polymorphisms of this gene are for future study, he said."A cure for baldness?
And a cure for baldness? Not impossible, Rogaev said. "I think one of the advances in this study is that it predicts very simple molecules might be used in the treatment of hair loss," he said.
Another expert agreed.
"It's too early to tell whether the gene plays a role in ordinary baldness," said Dr George Cotsarelis, an associate professor of dermatology and director of the hair and scalp clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
"The gene itself is found in a small group of people," he noted. "Whether it is relevant to common baldness isn't clear." But the fact that the enzyme is produced by a gene found in normal hair follicles holds open the possibility that it might play a role in everyday baldness, Cotsarelis added.
"I view this as another piece of the puzzle," he said. "It certainly is important for the families that have it, and to help us understand hair growth better. Whether it is applicable to normal hair loss just wasn't addressed in this paper." – (HealthDayNews)