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Pharma's 4 Best Shots at a Cure for Baldness

A study by the University of Pennsylvania's medical school that found scalp stem cells are still active in bald men has again raised interest in one of Big Pharma's most fabled El Dorados: A cure for baldness. The search for a solution to male-pattern baldness is at least 3,000 years old --- the ancient Egyptians treated it with hippo fat.

A quick look around your office will tell you exactly how successful that quest has been. You are likely surrounded by men who are bald, balding and baldest.

But drug companies know there are vast profits to be made from any product that prevents hair loss. Look at the revenues of products that don't work properly: Merck (MRK)'s Propecia has sales of about $400 million a year; Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) doesn't break out sales of Rogaine but in 2008 they were $50-100 million.

Here's a summary of recent progress into age-related male alopecia, and each product's commercial prospects, ranked in order of closeness to launch:

1. TRX2 by Oxford Biolabs
Product: The company believes that support of hair follicle's potassium ion channels is the key to maintaining hair growth. It launched its product, TRX2, yesterday.

Pros/cons: Although the company presents the product as a medical breakthrough, it's actually just another dietary supplement and as such is not approved by the FDA. In industry parlance, that's another of way of saying "we can't prove it works."

2. ReGenica* Hair Stimulating Complex by Histogen
Product: HSC has finished its animal model tests and has completed a phase 1 test in humans. Histogen claims it has seen "more hair, thicker hair shafts, and what appears to be the growth of completely new hair follicles" in test subjects. The product works through the "culturing of newborn fibroblasts in an embryonic-like environment, and then harvesting the naturally secreted embryonic wnt proteins, growth factors, and other synergistic bioproducts."

Pros/cons: The company remains tied up in litigation with SkinMedica, which claims it bought a skincare line among the bankrupt assets of another company, ATS. Histogen CEO Gail Naughton was the former CEO of ATS and allegedly took the skincare formula to Histogen, according to this federal court ruling. Secondly, the results of Histogen's tests so far are not that dramatic, as these before and after photos from its own press release suggest.

3. Latisse by Allergan (AGN)
Product: Latisse definitely grows eyelashes so Allergan is currently recruiting 28 subjects to see if it can also grow hair on male heads. The company is done with its animal testing.

Pros/cons: Latisse has some alarming side effects including a darkening of the skin around the eyes and permanent darkening of eye color if it's used improperly. Also, eyelashes are different beasts from scalp hairs, so it's not at all certain that Latisse's activity will carry over.

4. Stem cell research by the University of Pennsylvania

Product: There isn't one. Researchers found that, unexpectedly, bald men have just as many hair follicle stem cells (which make things grow) on their heads as hairy men. The sugestion is that perhaps there might be some way to stimulate these cells to turn into hair progenitor cells, which grow hair.

Pros/cons: Only one type of stem cell, KRT15, was found to remain active. Two others, CD200 and CD34, were "markedly diminished." Hair is complicated stuff and may require a combination of chemical switches to make it come back. No company is working on a drug for this.

There's a lot of nonsense floating around about baldness cures. The Daily Mail recently suggested that a full English breakfast -- eggs, sausage, beans -- contains the protein needed to keep hair healthy. It grows stomachs, so why not hair? And it's probably about as effective as anything else on the market.

*Correction: The confusion here is that HSC was called Regenica; its name was changed because that's also the name of Histogen's skincare line; the Regenica at issue in SkinMedica v. Histogen is not HSC.

Top image by Flickr user Mike Burns, CC.
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