A team of scientists at Columbia University Medical Center in New York have established the link between eight specific genes and alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. The genes are also implicated in other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, and as treatments have been developed to target these genes, it is hoped that the discovery may lead to new treatment possibilities for those suffering from alopecia areata.
The research paper, published in the July 1, 2010 issue of ‘Nature’ journal, pinpointed one particular gene, ULBP3, which may play a key role in the onset of alopecia areata. ULBP3, which attracts cells that can invade and destroy an organ, is not normally present in hair follicles, but has been found to be abundant in hair follicles affected by alopecia areata. Two other genes are also expressed in the hair follicle, and the remaining five are involved in the immune response.
“Finding the initial genes underlying alopecia areata is a big step forward, but the nature of the genes is even more exciting,” said Angela M. Christiano, Ph.D., professor of dermatology and genetics and development at Columbia University Medical Center, and lead author of the study. “Finally, we have the possibility of developing drugs that specifically target the mechanism behind the disease.”
Until now, alopecia areata was thought to be related to psoriasis, another inflammatory skin disease, but psoriasis drugs tested in clinical trials have shown little success in treating the condition. This new research has found that alopecia areata has few genes in common with psoriasis, but a much stronger association with coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
The researchers found a correlation between disease progression and the number of genes an alopecia areata sufferer carries. Those with 16 or more of the specific genes involved (each gene comes in two pairs) most often progressed to alopecia totalis, or total baldness. With this data, the team are developing a genetic test that should be able to predict the severity of the disease.
The progression of alopecia areata is currently extremely unpredictable. It generally starts with patchy hair loss and may progress to total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis) or total body hair loss (alopecia universalis). Hair may also spontaneously regrow, only to fall out again. The onset of the condition may be triggered by an external factor such as stress or injury, or by hormonal changes.
Treatment for alopecia areata can be very successful in the early stages, although once it progresses to alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis the prognosis is much less hopeful, so it is advisable to seek advice as soon as the problem is recognised. The trichologists at the Belgravia Centre are experienced at diagnosing and treating a wide range of hair loss conditions, using hair loss treatment programmes based around clinically proven primary medications. You can see the kind of results we have achieved in treating alopecia areata here.
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