Merck Pharmaceuticals has approved a grant intended to fund a research team of dermatologists at Cornell University Medical Center in New York City in using a new technology to analyze and compare tissue found in a balding area of the scalp with tissue found in a hair bearing area of the scalp. The study will last approximately 1 year, and will make use of the expensive and not so widely used Gene Chip technology to run hundreds of thousands of comparative analyses between the two types of tissues on a genetic level. Using the recently completed human genome as the foundation for the analysis, this will be the first time someone has ever been able to compare and contrast the hundreds of thousands of genes in each type of tissue in such a short period of time, and come up with a comprehensive review of the major differences between the two. This study holds immense promise of finding a new way to inhibit hair loss, or reverse the process entirely.
HairlossTalk Interviewed one of the approving members of the board, Dr. Marc Avram.
HairlossTalk – Could you tell us about the Grant given to you by Merck?
Avram: Our team came up with an idea for a research project on hair loss, and Merck has granted funding for the project, typically enough to cover the gathering of the necessary data. When I was training, I did basic research in the lab with this type of thing, but now what I’m mainly doing is in the office with various surgical procedures.
So with this project, we’re basically going to be taking tissue from an area of the scalp that is balding, and then take some tissue from an area of the scalp where men typically retain their hair, as you know, in the back of the scalp. And what’s come along is this fairly new technology in terms of being able to “scan” genes. As you know a few weeks ago they announced the mapping of the entire human genome. What we’re going to do is take the tissue from the balding area and take the tissue from the hair-bearing area and then run it through this new technology called a Gene Chip. There are only a couple companies around the country that do this, and it is very expensive, but what it can do is it can scan tens of thousands of genes. This is one of the first times this has ever been done on hair tissue like this, and we are excited to see exactly what “lights up” in the scanning process.
HairlossTalk – Could you elaborate on Merck’s involvement in this project?
Avram: I like doing studies, and our hospital affiliation is with Cornell University Medical School in New York City. There is a dermatologist there who does mainly basic research, and I am one of the people responsible for helping to get the grant from Merck for the project. The people with the various specialties on the team will be performing the various rolls on the project. If we find something, that of course will be great for Merck, and yes great for me because it would be great to present at meetings! It’s kind of a long grant we wrote for this. We had to write dozens and dozens of pages, and it had to make scientific sense, it goes before a scientific committee, and they decide whether or not this is an idea that seems interesting. Just like if we were to apply to the NIH (National Institute of Health) which is the major government funder for basic research in the country, its the same thing with Merck. Its not like “Oh we know you, we think you’re a nice person, and here’s the grant”. This thing had to make sense.
HairlossTalk – So basically you put a plan together with a team of other people, and presented it to Merck…
Avram: What they do is they grant the money, and the data that we get from the trials is published, and what is potentially useful for them is if we happen to find something that’s interesting therapeutically for them. In that sense, it could be beneficial for them. If we find a gene that hasn’t been found before, then all of a sudden, maybe someone at Merck can use that information in establishing a better treatment for hair loss. If we somehow found a cure, then yes, that’s great for Merck, but I think they’re looking at this moreso as a method by which to obtain some new and interesting data for them to work with.
HairlossTalk – How long is this project expected to be, in duration?
Avram: 1 year. It’s going to take us about that long to get the information necessary. We need to gather the tissue, send it to the lab, get it screened out, analyze the data, its about a year.
HairlossTalk – What kind of expectations does Merck have for this project considering they’ve made a financial investment in it?
Avram: Well, none of the participants are being directly paid by Merck for the research. Merck is funding the grant purely to cover the expenses for the research, and consequently will have the information obtained from it to either fund a larger hair loss project, or to take what we’ve found and run with it.
HairlossTalk – Could you give more information on who exactly is working on the project?
Avram: It’s basically the dermatological department at Cornell University in New York City. I’m not sure on the specifics as to who it will get distributed to within the department.
HairlossTalk – I know you have done a bit of genetic and tissue related work in your past. What are your realistic expectations for this project, conservatively and as a best case scenario?
Avram: I think the ability to find “the gene” and then manipulate that gene to effect a cure for something is a long way off. That’s not happening with this project or in the near future, but maybe if you find the gene or genes, and can figure out how they interact with eachother, you might be able to find out what goes wrong with the genes that cause baldness. If you can establish that there is an enzyme or some protein that may exist in overabundance or underabundance which may be responsible for shutting it off and causing balding, you can then come up with a medication that blocks that. You’ll then have a very good medication that will help prevent hair loss.
HairlossTalk – My understanding is that hair loss is due primarily to an increase in DHT receptor sites in the follicle/scalp. How realistic would it be to focus on finding a treatment which acts to reduce the number of receptor sites in the follicles, rather than doing what Propecia does by inhibiting DHT in the blood.
Avram: Well that’s exactly what this kind of project could come up with. Ultimately, it’s the actions of a gene or genes that creates the receptors in that location, and there are obviously some genes that nobody has found yet. We will be performing the chip scan on these tissues and hopefully come up with some incredible new leads for treatments. Another approach to looking at this is if we can find enough information to potentially determine what genes are responsible for *making* a hair follicle, then you’re looking at the potential to clone hair. That is one of our other main goals. Cloning.
HairlossTalk – Are you familiar with Dr. Gho’s hair cloning/multiplication procedure? The ability to create hair in an artificial environment and then implant them onto the scalp…
Avram: Whenever I hear something like that, the first thing I think is… two or three other people need to show the same thing. Not just one guy. A lot of people say “I’ve done such and such”. When it comes down to it, it has to be a repeatable process and when it comes time to make it known – it never happens. Nobody else is able to do it. But if he can really reproduce it, and then 10 other labs around the world can reproduce it, and its shown to be safe, then that’s a huge thing especially in the field of hair transplants because as you know, the limit is the donor area. So if he can clone hair, then what you can do with people in terms of density – there would be no more limits. Gho is no longer the only one pursuing cloning now.
HairlossTalk – Interesting, so Gho is no longer the only one pursuing hair cloning now. Is your team just one of the teams Merck is funding for a project like this?
Avram: I have no idea.
HairlossTalk – You mentioned something about how the Gene findings might ultimately result in a treatment. How could understanding genes in any way relate to the creation of, for example, something you put on your head in a liquid form? Aren’t they two totally different things?
Avram: Well I think its more about the process. Its more the focusing on getting down the technique of this new Gene Chip technology, learning how it works, taking the information it finds and determining a meaning from it. I think Merck is a big enough and smart enough company to be very open minded about this. I don’t think they really have any specific expectations like “We’d like to do this, this, this and this…” I think they recognize this as uncharted territory and are interested in funding new research in this area. I think they’re saying “Who knows? Maybe this technology will help us figure out a better cholesterol medication. Whatever is new, could be potentially interesting”. If we found something that was really interesting, then I think they would be interested in funding it in a much bigger way. This is really about getting information, testing the new technology, and then take it to the next step, which may be a much larger and longer project funded by them, or pursuing the cloning avenue.
HairlossTalk – Let’s say you found the cure to hair loss. … What do you think Merck would do. Create a treatment they could put people on for 30 years at $5 a week, or announce the cure to hair loss and get no monetary gain from it whatsoever?
Avram: Honestly? I have no idea. I’ve never worked in a pharmaceutical company. I don’t know the psychology behind it or anything like that.
HairlossTalk – Have they implied anything to you as far as what they’d do if you made “the big discovery” ?
Avram: We really came to them. They didn’t have a huge business plan to find the cure to hair loss. We presented to them this new chip technology and an idea, a new method by which to search for a baldness gene, and all we really want is some funding, so we can pay for the technology. We put together the information, and Merck gave us the grant! When you’re heading up something like this there are pretty much three places where you can get the resources to make it happen. Typically its the NIH, a Biotech company, or a pharmaceutical company. That’s typically where it comes from, unless you fund it yourself. Some of the clinical things I do, meaning if I want to study something like laser hair removal, in that case I just ask the company to provide the lasers and the materials and I will get the volunteer patients and make the clinical trial happen. I enjoy doing studies. With something like this however, which is pretty expensive and new, you need funding, and so we applied for a grant.
I then read the following post on alt.baldspot newsgroup to Dr. Avram because I was curious to see what he would say in response to it. Here is the post:
“Another thing I doubt is that serious gene therapy for MPB is going to happen any time soon. And by this, I mean in the next five to ten years. An indirect approach (like witching-off 5alpha-reductase) might be a bit more likely to happen. I strongly doubt that there’s a single gene responsible, any more than there’s a single “Death” gene that causes us all to grow old and die. No offense intended, but I think that to assume that they’ll get to work, find The Gene, get a pat on the back from the FDA, slap an appropriate treatment into bottles and stick them on store shelves, is being extremely naive. OTOH, they might find a gene therapy which *indirectly* treats the problem, like knocking out the gene which codes for 5alpha-reductase. But this is not exactly the same thing as what you’re talking about.”
HairlossTalk – Do you have any thoughts on that?
Avram: My answer to that is that if everyone thought like that on everything, there would never be any progress with anything in medicine. The only way you come up with something is to go up there and swing the bat. With HIV disease there is no magic bullet, people are living a lot better than they were 10 years ago because of tiny advances in medicine. Cancer treatments – is there a magic bullet for that? No but there are a lot better treatments now for a lot of cancers. It’s the same thing with hair. We don’t expect to swing the bat and hit a grand slam out of the park. We’re thinking that the more information you find out, the better chances you have to eventually hit the grand slam. That’s why this study is so important. To hit the grand slam you first have to identify the basic mechanism for male and female pattern baldness. At this time, nobody knows the complete basic mechanism for MPB.
HairlossTalk – Have you heard of Dutasteride?
Avram: Yeah – I think its probably a good treatment, but again it’s a reactive treatment based on what we already know, and therefore it’s not a magic bullet. My feeling on it is that the more things that are available – the better, if the clinical trials on it show that it works, but I just think that its all about the new technology. New technology comes along, you push it, and that’s how you develop new things. The way you solve problems, is by tackling them.
HairlossTalk – Let’s assume for a moment that your research leads to something significant. How long would you say it would take after that point before it appeared on store shelves as a useable product?
Avram: Based on medicine in general, 5 to 10 years. First you need to produce it and then reproduce it. You need to do preliminary clinical trials, secondary clinical trials, each taking a few years. Any medicine we’re using now like Claritin or Antibiotics, they first appeared probably about 5 or 10 years ago.
Kevin Rands is the Founder of HairLossTalk.com and President of Online Health Networks, Inc. a Miami based corporation providing consumer health education on the web. He is also the Founder and Principal Writer for DisrupterDaily.com, an online publication on disruption of health and tech sectors.