In 1998, researchers at Columbia University discovered the first human gene associated with hair loss. The gene, called hairless, is linked to a severe form of inherited baldness.
Alopecia is a disruption in the cycle of human hair growth. The most common type of hair loss, known as androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness, affects 80 percent of the population. Other forms of alopecia, such as alopecia areata, are thought to be related to autoimmune dysfunction or stress. Alopecia areata affects 2.5 million Americans.
Angela M. Christiano, Ph.D., who led the study, noticed similarities between hairless mice being used in dermatology research and the rare genetic form of balding known as alopecia universalis, which causes hair loss over the entire body.
By comparing the known mouse gene with human chromosomes, the team discovered that the hairless gene initiated a cascade of events that stimulated hair growth (hair follicles, like all cells, have cycles).
This finding is the first indication that we may be able to regulate that cycle, triggering the growth of new hair. It may be possible, for instance, to treat hair loss through gene therapy administered topically.