Anyone with an interest in hair loss
research will have noticed that the name of one woman crops up more regularly than any other. That name is Angela Christiano
, and the smart money is on this New York-based scientist holding the keys to a number of game-changing new treatments.
Dr Christiano is a widely-respected PhD scientist at Columbia University: she has been there for just over 20 years and in that time has established herself as a global authority on hair loss.
Hand of fate
She describes her foray into this field as “the hand of fate directing me
” because around the time she arrived at Columbia to set up a new lab, she was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata
, the autoimmune disorder that leads to sudden patchy hair loss. Born into a family of hairdressers, she was stunned to find handfuls of her luscious dark locks falling out in clumps. She told the New York Times back in 2010 that she would cover the bald patches with careful combing, but that new ones kept appearing. “It was like plugging holes in a dam
,” she said.
What she quickly found was that there was no instant fix. While there are widely-used treatments for Alopecia Areata
, they are only appropriate for the mild to moderate forms of the condition, and Dr Christiano figured that the answer to future treatments might lie in understanding the condition at a genetic level. With the Human Genome Project nearing completion at the time, she began assembling a pool of 1,000 people with Alopecia Areata who would agree to let her peer into their DNA.
Once the technology was ready, Dr Christiano was able to identify a number of key genetic markers for Alopecia Areata which have gone on to form the basis of much of her work.
Today, Christiano is involved with (at least) two different companies that have set out their stall as potential future treatment options for Alopecia Areata and - perhaps more importantly, its more severe related conditions Alopecia Totalis and Alopecia Universalis
which have no truly effective treatment options.
From Vixen Pharmaceuticals to Rapunzel
The first is called Vixen Pharmaceuticals, which has recently been acquired by Aclaris Therapeutics
, an American company who plan to commercialise the work started by Dr Christiano and her team that explored the use of JAK inhibitors as a treatment option for Alopecia Areata. When the deal was completed earlier this year, Dr Christiano stated that “Aclaris has made a strong commitment to research and development for hair disorders and we look forward to Aclaris bringing JAK inhibitors to the clinic
Some of the Jak Inhibitors Being Explored
are a collection of drugs designed to treat a number of conditions ranging from bone cancers to rheumatoid arthritis. It appears that the goal of Aclaris is to adapt these drugs which can be very powerful and are sometimes somewhat blighted by unpleasant side-effects for safe use on hair loss conditions that even extend to the genetic conditions Male Pattern Baldness and Female Pattern Hair Loss
Interestingly, back in 2010 in her interview with the New York Times, Dr Christiano said that genetics had shown that Alopecia Areata had less in common with autoimmune skin diseases like psoriasis than first thought and that it was more closely associated with other autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, one of the conditions certain JAK inhibitors were originally designed to treat.
The second of the doctor’s ventures is called Rapunzel, and this comes at hair loss from an entirely different angle. With Rapunzel, Dr Christiano is competing with a number of other companies (including RepliCel
) to develop a safe and effective way of growing new hair in a lab from a patient’s stem cells.
According to an article about Dr Christiano on medical news website STAT this month: “The challenge, to date, has been getting scalp stem cells to turn into actual hair follicles for years, scientists could only get them to morph into standard fibroblasts, which are cells that create generic connective tissue. Christiano’s lab has now found that it can grow actual hair on a 3-D scaffold of tissue culture medium doused with a mix of growth factors.
Hair grown in a lab
The long-term goal is to be able to grow hair in a lab so that it can then be transplanted into the scalp as needed. Patients who choose this option to combat genetic baldness will most likely still need to follow a bespoke hair loss treatment course
- just as current hair transplant
patients do - if they want to preserve their results.
This is because the hairs around the newly-implanted grafts will remain just as susceptible to the ravages of a testosterone by-product named DHT as before the procedure. DHT
in people with a genetic sensitivity to it is what ultimately makes hair gradually thin hair fall out in cases of Female and Male Pattern Baldness
For those affected with male or female pattern hair loss, or alopecia areata, there are effective treatment options already available.
What is most remarkable, perhaps, is that Dr Christiano has irons in other fires, too: in addition to her pioneering work in hair loss, she is a leading authority in the field of dermatology. Just this month, she was named as one of the key players in a new consortium that has been formed to help fight the rare and debilitating genetic disease Epidermolysis Bullosa.