Researchers Link Alopecia Areata to Eight Genes

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The newly crowned Miss Delaware 2010 Kayla Martell has something no other pageant winner has – alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss. She may soon have hope for a cure. Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center in New York City have linked alopecia to eight genes, which may likely bring new treatments.

According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation which helped fund the research, alopecia areata afflicts about 5 million Americans. The disease affects men and women equally, but women seek treatment more often and are therefore diagnosed more frequently.

Alopecia areata usually starts with one or more small, round patches on the scalp and may eventually progress to total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis) or complete body hair loss (alopecia universalis). In some people, hair may grow back in or fall out again at any time.

Currently there are no FDA approved treatments for alopecia areata.

Senior study author Dr. Angela Christiano, professor of dermatology and genetics and development and AA sufferer, studied the genome analysis of 1,054 people with alopecia areata and 3278 people without the disorder. The eight genes associated with alopecia were the same as other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

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And the more genes a person carries, the more severe their condition. Those who carried 16 or more paired genes were more likely to progress to alopecia universalis.

One gene in particular, ULBP3, attracts cytotoxic cells that attack the follicle, resulting in hair loss. The ULBP3 proteins attract cells marked by a killer cell receptor, known as NKG2D, which is also involved in other autoimmune disorders and could potentially serve as a biomarker for alopecia areata. Two other genes were also expressed in hair follicles, while the remaining five genes were involved in immune system response.

The researchers are hopeful that some of the drugs already in development for other autoimmune diseases could also be used for hair loss.

"“Finding the initial genes underlying alopecia areata is a big step forward, but the nature of the genes is even more exciting,” Christiano says. “Since drugs are already in development that target these pathways -- because they are being tested to treat rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and other diseases where the NKG2D receptor is involved -- we may soon be able to test these drugs in clinical trials for alopecia areata. Finally, we have the possibility of developing drugs that specifically target the mechanism behind the disease.”

Vicki Kalabokes, president and CEO of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, said “This research is very exciting, as alopecia areata affects a huge number of people worldwide. Hair loss is life-altering – sufferers, especially children, experience social stigma. It affects their quality of life and can lead to long-term psychosocial impact.”

Kayla Martell began to lose her hair when she was only 10, but thankfully that didn't stop her from her dream to be in pageants. "I was very confident because of the family I had," she said. "I know in my heart that every girl is a beauty queen, whether she has hair or not!”

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