Hugh Reilly: New barnet formula for hair-loss

Revolutionary US treatment is a late but welcome breakthrough for those affected by alopecia, writes Hugh Reilly

Gail Porter is perhaps the best-known sufferer of alopecia. Picture: Getty

‘OIL on the lad’s hair?” asked Tom, eponymous owner of Tom The Barber, his hairstyling emporium located inside a static caravan parked adjacent to the bus terminus. Sitting atop a strap of wood on the barber’s chair and staring into the mirror, I prayed that my mother would, for once, just say: “No thanks.”

Tom already held a bottle of cheap hair oil in his hand, primed as if it were a grease-grenade to toss over my bonce. A simple nod of mater’s head was the catalyst for Easterhouse’s version of Vidal Sassoon to dump an oil slick on to my hair and quickly massage it into my scalp. Within seconds, he’d created a gooey hairstyle that would not move, even in a hurricane. As I hopped on to the floor, I heard him tell my mother something in a hushed tone. Possessing the hearing of a bat – with ears to match, it must be said – I discovered that Tom believed I had alopecia. Despite being a bookworm and an avid reader of the Look and Learn magazine, I’d never encountered this odd-sounding word.

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Within a short time, it became evident that the barber’s diagnosis was bald-spot-on. At just ten years old, I’d developed something of a tonsure around the crown area.

Naturally, I was devastated, fearing that, in any future pretend games of Robin Hood with my mates, I’d be typecast as Friar Tuck. To be fair to my pals, the chaplain to the merry band probably only played a tangential role in them christening me “The Mad Monk”. Truth be told, it could have been worse if Telly Savalas’s Kojak had been aired at this time.

My hair-free zone was originally the size of sixpence but within weeks, perhaps due to inflation, it grew to a half-crown. Just as I was quickly running out of coinage that could accurately describe the creeping desertification affecting my dome, the alopecia came to a halt.

Things stayed that way until the onset of premature male pattern baldness finished off the job alopecia had started.

According to a recent medical study in New York, a cure for alopecia has been discovered. Three sufferers of the condition participated in a pilot trial of the drugs ruxolitinib and tofacitinib. After a mere five months of taking the medication, the trio experienced full re-growth. Of course, more research needs to be undertaken, but the results offer hope to those whose self-confidence is shattered by the illness.

Initial animal testing of the drugs involved the usual rodent suspects. Mice with alopecia given the new chemical concoction sprouted a full barnet within 12 weeks.

Called JAK inhibitors, the drugs can be taken in pill form and block immune pathways. Apparently, they attack the T-cell immune cells responsible for destroying hair follicles. While the antics of their blind peers are remembered through the medium of nursery song, the experiment’s bald mice who no longer need a comb-over may be more deserving of fame.

Unfortunately, the drugs only cure alopecia areata – that is, partial hair loss. Those afflicted with a more extreme type – alopecia totalis – must wait and trust that further advances in medical science will end their torment. As the name suggests, alopecia totalis is complete baldness (in terms of brutal nomenclature, it’s up there with people with misshapen noses being referred to the rhinoplasty department of the local hospital).

Sadly, in a few cases, patients endure alopecia universalis, a loss of all body hair.

Gail Porter is perhaps the most well-known sufferer of alopecia. She decided to bare it all rather than wear a wig or take out a loyalty card with a bespoke milliner. While I sincerely salute her bravery and strength of character, I feel that others in the same situation find it more difficult to cope. As a famous face – and a beautiful one at that – Porter was accustomed to being gawped at in public, used to the pointing and staring of those passing by. How awful it must be for alopecia sufferers to be the reluctant centres of attention when shopping or boarding buses.

The lead researcher of the new treatment for alopecia, Dr Raphael Clynes, believes that much more needs to be done. “This disease has been completely understudied. Until now, only two small clinical trials evaluating targeted therapies in alopecia areata have been performed,” she said.

Part of the reason why the studying of the disease enjoys Cinderella status is that only one person in every hundred experiences the illness. The long and short of it is that there isn’t a large, lucrative market for pharmaceutical companies to exploit. By way of marked contrast, huge financial resources are being expended in the race to discover a money-spinning remedy for male baldness. Around 40 per cent of men have noticeable hair loss by age 35 (this percentage is probably underestimated, given the various trichological ruses males employ to disguise hair loss). A wonder drug that replenishes hair will bring windfall profits to the manufacturer.

In common with other auto-immune diseases, alopecia is an inherited condition, with about 25 per cent of sufferers having a family history of the disorder.

In many cases, alopecia lies latent in the body until triggered by an emotional event such as stress or sudden shock. For many, it is a one-off trauma, the hair re-growing after a period of time. However, one in five patients report recurring incidences of hair loss.

Despite the expensive ads in glossy magazines and plausibly convincing TV commercials showing hairy men with beaming smiles, Regaine is not a cure for alopecia; instead, help at the margins comes in the shape of corticosteroid cream or Dithranol (a tar-like ointment). In our appearance-obsessed culture, dramatic hair loss is often a catalyst for mental health problems. Although alopecia can hit almost anyone, it disproportionately affects younger people, with children as young as two becoming victims. The revolutionary work being carried out in the US is to be applauded. It’s too late for me, but I earnestly wish that no other youngster, or adult for that matter, goes through what I experienced.

That’s the bald truth.