Balding Irony

Baldness affects many people (mostly men) at some point in their lives and a lot of research has been carried out to learn how to prevent it. The secret to doing so might be the most ironic treatment ever: to prevent going bald, pluck your hair.

The science of hair growth is more fascinating than it may seem at first sight. Hairs actually go through cycles: first they grow thanks to the stem cells in the follicle (the anagen phase), then they stop growing (the rest phase), and lastly the hair falls out. But if you manually remove the hair at any of these phases, an interesting process is triggered. The follicle will release cytokines, specifically the CCL2 type, which is a chemical that attracts white blood cells. When these cells arrive, they also release their own set of chemicals that stimulate stem cells so they start producing hair again. However, what’s the point of plucking one hair so that it grows if you already have it?

Well, there’s a trick. Scientists at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, did some experiments with mice where they removed a handful of hair on a specific area of the mouse’s body, and to their surprise, found that not only did the patch of hair grow back, but also stimulated growth in others areas. The catch is that this only happened if a certain amount of hair was removed: there was a threshold for the amount of hair that needed to be pulled out for others to be stimulated.

bald head

Should’ve plucked his hair more often!

This is because the CCL2 signal from one follicle isn’t very large; you need CCL2 to build up so the effects are much stronger and can affect a larger area of the skin. In the specific experiment they carried out, the lowest number of hairs that had to be removed was of 200, which lead to the growth of 1200 hairs. The way these hairs can communicate with each other by accumulation of chemical signals is called ‘quorum sensing’, and it causes the hairs to act like a collective group, as if taking decisions together.

Although the study was carried out on mice, the researchers don’t rule out the fact that it could somehow be used in humans, although some modification may be necessary. It also shows the increasing complexity of the immune system, and possibly sheds some light as to how the mechanism of regeneration is controlled.


Superviruses: Worth the Risk?

We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.

Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.

Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.

Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.

The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.

In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.

Embracing New Organs

There is a wide variety of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, kidney failure… that can be treated or even cured with an organ transplant. However, a disadvantage of this otherwise great cure is the fact that since the new organ doesn’t really come from you, your immune system might attack it. The current solution to this problem is a mixture of immunosuppressant drugs, which although work in making the body accept foreign organs, they can cause very uncomfortable and serious side effects.

This problem is what lead Allan Kirk, scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to look for possible alternatives. His team and himself eventually managed to create a small group of drugs, only three, to substitute the previous cocktails of medicines. What’s even better is that his drugs can even reset the immune system so that the patient must only take one drug every month instead of daily, as they do now.

Well then let’s meet his three drugs and learn how they work. The first one is alemtuzumab, and has to be given at the same time the organ transplant is happening. What it does is it completely destroys all white blood cells in the patient’s body that might attack the organ. It’s like making the immune system and its army of defenders start from 0.
The following drug is belatacept, and is given to the patient when new white blood cells start to appear. This drug acts in a way that makes the new cells accept the new organ as part of the patient and leave it in peace.
Lastly, a dose of sirolimus is administered. It is a normal, immunosuppressant drug whose function is to prevent any of the white blood cells that survived the original massacre from the alemtuzumab from damaging the organ.
Altogether, most patients would only have to take the initial drugs, and after those, only one injection a month, which is considerably more comfortable than the current treatment.


This cocktail of drugs has been replaced by only 3 drugs

Kirk has been carrying his experiments in a group of 13 people, and a year after they started the treatment none of them have shown signs of rejection. But Kirk has had to ask them if they wanted to stop taking the sirolimus and most did. The ones who chose to keep with it are perfectly fine, and those who got off of it are also fine, but now have to take monthly belatacept injections.

The implications of this revolutionary treatment are incredible. Up until now it has only been tested on a small sample of people, and all with kidney transplants, but Kirk and his team plan on doing larger groups with other organ transplants.