Cures for Baldness: Hair-Raising Science


It is some time now since I started to worry about baldness – somewhere between the retreat of the already fine hair at my temples in my early 30s and the final failing of the last growth of hair at my crown a few years back.

I had been trying to convince myself that things might not be too bad for the past 20 years. But at the beginning of this year, at the age of 55, an encounter with a ceiling-mounted mirror revealed to me what was doubtless obvious to others – a monkish, thinning crown. There was no longer any doubt about it. I was definitely more bald than not.

My wife, Rachael, wanted me to take it all off and be done with it. It was an option that made me nervous. My brother, Jack, a professional hairdresser for 20-odd years, advised me to hold on to what little I had. He had witnessed many times the shock, usually unpleasant, that men felt when they finally did clip or shave their hair.

I retained a sentimental attachment to what remained of my hair. After all, it had once been my pride and joy. In my teenage years, during the summer, it was cornstalk yellow, and I wore it long and wild. I considered it to be one of the few effective items of mating display available to me, and its relentless disappearance was a matter of grave regret.

But regrets were not going to get my locks back. So, against the advice of my own brother, I turned up at Jack’s salon, determined, at last, to go for The Chop.

I may be ONE OF THE LAST generation of men who face this dilemma. In December last year, scientists at the Berlin Technical University revealed they had grown the world’s first artificial hair follicles from stem cells. The leader of the research team claimed that within five years millions of hair-loss sufferers could grow new hair from their own stem cells and have it implanted into their bald spots. In January this year a study by the University of Pennsylvania suggested that bald men were not bald at all – it was simply that their stem cells were producing growths too fine to be visible to the human eye. According to the team leader, Dr George Cotsarelis, "The fact that there are normal numbers of stem cells in a bald scalp gives us hope for reactivating those stem cells."

Then, in February, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that a chemical called Astressin B showed "astounding" results for hair regrowth after one jab per day for just five days. The tests were on mice, but the researchers were confident that a cure for baldness could be found in five to 10 years.

Finally, in March, a British company called Nanogen announced that their scientists had pioneered a brand new technology to combat hair loss. The new technology had "been designed to improve hair growth and even re-awaken dormant hair follicles". The company claimed to have developed a new "growth factor complex" (sh-VEGF) which would stimulate hair-follicle growth on balding scalps.

Taken together, this seemed to herald a revolution. Over the years there has been no shortage of unrealistic headlines promising an end to baldness – but most of this new research seemed to emanate from respectable academic institutions, and all of them seemed to be promising the same thing – the End of Bald.

Even if the research proved to be disappointing in the long run, there appeared to be other developments in the world of hair repair taking place, too – not in biochemistry, but in the technology of hair weaving and transplants.

Actor James Nesbitt spent tens of thousands of pounds on what appeared to be a remarkably successful hair transplant. "They’ve changed my life. It’s horrible going bald. Anyone who says it isn’t is lying," said Nesbitt. Instead of the pitted sprouting potato look seen on many unfortunate recipients of hair transplants, Nesbitt’s hair looks convincing enough to help land him – he believed – major new roles that he would otherwise have been denied.

The success of the transplant doubtless had something to do with the amount of money he could afford to spend on the job, but in the past hard cash didn’t always solve the problem. "All that money and he’s still got hair like a dinner lady," spat Boy George of Elton John, who has appeared to unsuccessfully confront his receding hairline with various ineffectual treatments over the years.

But this time, the transplants were actually pretty convincing. What was going on? There were rumours that a new hair-transplant technique – FUE, or Follicular Unit Extraction, which transplants follicles from the back of the head one by one instead of in a long strip – used robot technology to enable thousands of follicles to be replanted at once, thus producing a more sophisticated and convincing result. Perhaps a new crop of hair could be bought, right now, without having to wait for genetic science to take the necessary leap forward.

At my brother’s hairdressing shop in London’s Soho, I paced the floor. I’d spent the past week in a sunny clime gaining a tan in an attempt to minimise the impact, but listening to Jack revving up his clippers made me antsy in the extreme.

I lowered myself nervously into the chair. This would be the end of all choice – other than one, two, three or four, the settings on Jack’s clippers. A "number one" was the bonehead cut, the number four the "suede head". I decided to go for the most modest option, the number four.

As I watched the hair cascade from my scalp, I was surprised how much of it I still had left. There was still bulk at the sides and the back, but that was now disappearing in clumps on to Jack’s floor. I watched with a combination of fascination and anxiety. The procedure didn’t seem to require too much artistry – clip, flip, drop, buzz, zip. Jack started with a channel down the centre of the head, just for fun I think, so I would look genuinely like a 50s mental patient, then took the rest off. The process probably lasted no more than 20 minutes. I kept asking Jack to change the music to something more calming.

Then it was over. Jack smiled, and dusted the back of my neck with talcum powder. I ran my hand over my head to feel the sharp, angry stubble, checked in the mirror then went into the bathroom and checked the mirror there.

How did I feel? I felt happy.

I had never felt so clean, and so… straightforward. It was no nonsense, it was real, it was me. I liked it.

I suddenly had no idea what the fuss about being bald was all about.

Why does baldness matter so much to men? The thinker and notable bald person, Alain de Botton, recalls his own grief when his hair began to disappear in his late teens.

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