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Hair loss tied to genetic defect in study in Russia

Scientists have identified a genetic defect in some people who have trouble growing hair, opening a new avenue for research on treatments for baldness, according to a study in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

An enzyme called lipase H may help hair grow and develop, researchers wrote. A specific gene, LIPH, which allows the body to produce the enzyme, is defective in some members of Russia's Chuvash and Mari populations, in which even young girls sometimes inherit a form of baldness, the scientists found. About one in four men begins to lose hair by age 30, and two in three will be bald or "have a balding pattern" by 60, according to the US National Institutes of Health. While drugs such as Pfizer Inc.'s Rogaine are sold to treat hair loss, the medicines don't work for everyone and the response to the products can't be predicted.

The new research "identifies a novel molecular pathway in regulation of hair growth," said Evgeny Rogaev, the leader of the study and a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, in a November 7 e-mail. "Experiments in animals will be required to prove these predictions." The search for a cure for baldness began at least 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians treated hair loss with fats from crocodiles and geese, according to the Food and Drug Administration's Web site.

Genes are hereditary units, consisting of DNA, that contain the instructions used by the body to make essential substances called proteins. The scientists speculated that mutation in the gene makes the enzyme ineffective, arresting hair growth. Rogaev said he worked with colleagues in Russia, who had noticed many people in the Volga-Ural region, where Europe and Asia meet, have little or no body hair. The scientists screened about 350,000 people among the Mari and the Chuvash.

The resulting data suggest that more than 98,000 people in those groups have one copy of a mutated gene affecting lipase H production, according to the study. About 1,500 people have two copies of the defective gene. "The identification of a genetic defect in LIPH suggests that this enzyme regulates hair growth and therefore may be a potential target for the development of a therapeutic agent for the control of hair loss or growth," the scientists wrote.

Current treatments are no blockbusters, according to analysts. "The problem is that the drugs don't work that well," said Mike Krensavage, an analyst with Raymond James in New York, in a telephone interview. "The market would be huge if something worked." With ?228.4 million ($291.9 million) in sales last year, the hair-loss medicine Propecia was the 11th-biggest product for Merck & Co. The Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company had four products, unrelated to baldness, with more than ?1.5 billion ($2 billion) each in sales, including the cholesterol drug Zocor.


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