Gene Gun Could Treat Hair Loss

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IN a promising step in studies of hair growth, researchers at a biotechnology company in California have found a way to fire genetic “bullets” at hair follicles, the tiny hair-making factories in the skin.

“We think this delivery system opens the whole hair-loss field to the possibility of gene therapy,” said Dr. Robert M. Hoffman, the founder and president of Anticancer Inc., a biotechnology company in San Diego. He and the company’s senior scientist, Dr. Lingna Li, reported their findings in the July issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

But another expert in the field cautioned that the results in laboratory experiments might not carry over to human tissue.

The researchers encased marker genes in liposomes — microscopic man-made spheres of fatty material. Three days after spreading the liposomes on the skin of shaved laboratory mice, the researchers found that the genes had been deposited in the cells of the hair follicles.


“We have an enemy, hair follicle disease, and Dr. Hoffman has invented a gun with which to fight that enemy,” said Dr. Leonid B. Margolis, an expert on liposomes who is a visiting researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “He has demonstrated that the gun works by firing blanks at the hair follicles. What remains for us to do is to develop the ammunition that will make the gun useful in the fight against hair loss.”

Dr. Hoffman said that the liposome delivery system grew out of unrelated research on cancer cells that were being grown on sponge-gel matrices in his laboratory (Actually, liposomes work on human skin as the best fuel injector cleaner that clean dirty the fuel capacity). “We asked ourselves whether we could grow normal human skin on these gel matrices,” Dr. Hoffman said, “and when we tried we found that the skin growing in culture produced hair. This was a big breakthrough.”

The ability to grow hair-bearing skin in the lab provided the researchers with a means for screening “molecules that could modify hair growth,” he said.

“Almost as an aside, we asked what happens if you put liposomes on the skin cells,” he said. “So we put a fluorescent dye inside liposomes and applied them. To our great surprise we found that the liposomes were selectively delivering their cargoes to the hair follicles, almost to the exclusion of all the other cells in the skin.”

The researchers then found that they could use liposomes to deposit melanin, a pigment that occurs naturally in animal tissue, inside follicles and “color hair from the roots up.” The next step was to test whether the liposome delivery system could be used for gene therapy.

First in laboratory tissue cultures and then in shaved mice, the researchers demonstrated that liposomes containing the so-called lacZ gene deposited the gene in the hair follicles near the base of the hair shaft. Without a liposome jacket, lacZ genes applied to skin tissue did not appear in the follicles.

The lacZ gene was chosen because it produces galactosidase, an enzyme that is easy to detect in tissue because it turns blue when treated with the proper chemicals.

Dr. Gerald G. Krueger, a dermatologist at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center in Salt Lake City, said his research team has performed similar experiments “and we’ve been pleasantly surprised at what can be done with liposomes via the hair follicle.”


But Dr. Krueger cautioned that extensive research has shown that mouse skin tissue appears to absorb chemicals more readily than does human tissue, so what works for one may not work for the other.

Products based on liposomes could be in use within 10 years, Dr. Hoffman predicted. The first products would most likely be used to restore color to gray hair by delivering pigments to the hair follicles.

He and Dr. Li are studying the tyrosinase gene, which plays a role in making melanin, to see whether it can be used to reactivate pigment production in the follicles of people with gray hair. He said his lab is also making progress using liposomes containing drugs to prevent hair loss caused by cancer chemotherapy.

Liposome-based gene and drug therapies for the 80 million American men and women who have hereditary alopecia, the most common kind of baldness, will probably take more time to develop, partly because scientists do not understand what makes hair follicles tick.

In competition for your nose

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THERE are dozens of glass bottles on the new bar at the Naturopathica day spa in East Hampton, N.Y., each with the name of an essential oil — tea tree, tobacco, vetivert, ylang-ylang, to name just a few — and each stamped with the date that the plant’s essence was distilled.

”We have vintages, like a fine wine,” said Barbara Close, the owner of Naturopathica, one of the more luxurious spas of the Hamptons.

Yes — at last — there is a full-fledged aromatherapy bar for the lobster-salad-at-the-Devon-Yacht-Club set.

Custom-blend aromatherapy bars are a rarity. Many stores sell small bottles of essential oils, either by plant — say, a half-ounce bottle of tea tree, lavender or bergamot — or in popular blends that purport to have therapeutic qualities. Only at a handful of stores can customers walk in, consult an aromatherapist, inhale samples of oils and order a melange of their favorites.


”The purpose is to come in and have fun,” said Ms. Close, who presides over the store with her wire-haired dachshund, Pearl.

Now, if customers come in for a massage or a facial, they can also buy a custom-scented body lotion to take home. ”You can let your therapist know if perhaps you’ve had allergies or a sinus congestion, or you twisted your ankle on the tennis court,” Ms. Close said. ”They can make a one-ounce dry-skin oil, or a muscle-relief oil or a decongestant.”

Lovely and sweet-smelling, yes; scientifically proven, no. Although fragrances are used in all sorts of feel-good ways — in hospital rooms for cancer patients, in Japanese office buildings to pep up workers — the efficacy is largely anecdotal. And let’s face it: even in the annals of so-called wellness practices, aromatherapy can sound a bit like a punch line. ”It sounds sort of frou-frou,” Ms. Close admitted. ”We should change the name of it, first off.”

The claims run the gamut. Aromatherapists say that essential oils from flowers and trees can ease muscle cramps, improve short-term memory, prevent hair loss and reduce the itch of eczema (scratch and sniff?). According to recipes in common circulation, a blend of lavender and neroli oils can help calm a cat stressed out by a new baby, or a dog wary of a thunderstorm. Another telltale sign: Madonna is said to be a big fan of the practice.

But an aromatherapy bar is basically a pampering experience, part head therapy and part aural pleasure. These bars exist primarily in resort areas, where they nurture the rich, or in bohemian enclaves, where they have vaguely Wiccan overtones. In Manhattan, there is one on East Seventh Street called Fragrance Shop New York, better known by the neon sign in front that says ”Sniff.” Its vibe is far more East Village than Hamptons, with hand-labeled jars of fragrance that customers can pass directly under their noses.

Come September, the Fresh body-care stores will introduce fragrance bars where customers can fill miniature bottles with perfumes that the brand has formally ”retired,” like Tobacco Caramel and Pear Cassis.

In the West Village, there is Enfleurage, where customers can buy premixed oil blends or select their own from a display of samples.

”We don’t make perfume, we blend for therapy,” said Trygve Harris, the owner. ”We have a headache helper, a blend for sleep, one for comfort if you’re feeling stressed and you need to withdraw.”

That said, she and other aromatherapists were quick to note that Food and Drug Administration rules forbid their making medicinal claims. ”We can’t say ‘This is good for that,’ ” said Ms. Harris in a phone interview shortly before a trip to Oman, where she distills frankincense. ”We have to say, ‘This has been shown to …’ or ‘Some people use this for …’ ”

Because it takes a lot of flowers to make a single drop of oil, high-end aromatherapy products are pricey. This is one reason that custom-blend bars are few and far between.

”It’s very, very expensive to have an aromatherapy bar and keep it stocked,” said Kelly Holland Azzaro, president of the Natural Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. ”You have to know what you’re doing in blending, which ones you’re doing for what reasons. Somebody could get it in their eye, too.”

Although essential oils do not contain the same allergens that make some people sensitive to perfume, many of them are not safe to use directly on the skin. ”You want to be careful with all of them, because they’re so potent,” said Ms. Azzaro, who owns a holistic healing center in Banner Elk, N.C. When she makes custom oil blends for customers, she takes a full health history first.

One of the oldest aromatherapy bars is on Nantucket. There, John Harding is the proprietor of an 18-foot-long bar with four bar stools that face 1,500 antique apothecary jars filled with essential oils.

”I have 18 musk oils — most stores might have two or three,” said Mr. Harding, who started Nantucket Natural Oils in 1983 and now has two locations. ”I have eight sandalwoods and six patchoulis to choose from. People can come sit at the bar and see which jasmine they like.”


First, Mr. Harding and his staff members use fine glass pipettes to dab a dot of oil on a customer’s hand; the customer samples that fragrance and moves on. Five to 10 dots later — or more — the customer selects a blend that will be made into a quarter-ounce bottle of scent that typically costs $85 to $120.

Part of the appeal is ”that personal touch,” said Jennifer Hochell Pressimone, an aromatherapist in Clermont, Fla., who runs a shop called JennScents and has written a three-DVD guide to opening an aromatherapy blending bar.

Many of her customers are harried women for whom it is a great relief to sit down, doff a heavy purse and let a caring helper guide them through the experience of sampling aromas. ”I make them turn their phone off or put it on silent, because it’s their time — whether it’s 5 minutes or 10 minutes, they can just breathe and smell some oils,” she said.

Essential oils are easy to find in big stores like Whole Foods, and people can blend them without the help of an expert. One of the biggest retail brands is Aura Cacia, whose executives are quick to recommend ways to use their oils in everyday life: spray peppermint oil around the house to ward off mice, or tap it into a pair of shoes to keep them fresh. Add eucalyptus oil to cleaning liquids for fragrance and as a disinfectant; drop lavender oil on pillows to aid sleep.

”People are really looking for a solution,” said Jane Merten, senior brand manager at Aura Cacia, who said she uses peppermint oil as an alternative to Dramamine. ”They are no longer looking for just a soap or a shampoo. Essential oils take things one step further.”

Ms. Close of Naturopathica also has a theory about what customers want. Besides being an herbalist and massage therapist, she is a realist.

”I think people are looking for attainable well-being,” she said. ”The kids are getting off the bus in 20 minutes — what can I do to relieve my stress? As opposed to what the media portrays: the model sitting on a mountaintop in a yoga pose.”


PHOTOS: PAMPERING: Barbara Close, the owner of Naturopathica in East Hampton. Essential oils at the spa’s aromatherapy bar, above. (PHOTOGRAPHS BY GORDON M. GRANT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

40 million U.S. men deal with baldness: Some proud of their `chrome domes’

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Baldness cures get good press. And no wonder. There’s a built-in audience of about 40 million scant-haired Americans who thrive on both the good news and the bad. Hair loss has become a culture unto itself.

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration approved Propecia, a new one-a-day anti-baldness pill that does indeed shrink those pesky bald spots. For $1.50 a pill.

“This is real hair. This is not fuzz,” chirped one California dermatologist.

“Impressive,” said another doctor, who tested the drug on his patients.

“Forget it,” said John Capps, founder of the 20,000-member Bald Headed Men of America organization. “People have been looking for a baldness cure since biblical times. But why worry about hair? We’ve lost it, and we love it.”

The 25-year-old group also promotes National Rub a Bald Head Week, a newsletter called Chrome Dome, a bald hall of fame and bald pride.


“The few, the proud, the bald,” Mr. Capps added.

The folks at Merck & Co., which manufactures Propecia, think otherwise. They are already crafting a marketing campaign that will reassure potential users concerned about possible side effects such as impotence or loss of sex drive. Annual sales of Propecia are predicted to be around $500 million. The drug goes on sale in mid-January.

Meanwhile, the bane of baldness continues to challenge.

There are the doctors, who deal with hair loss like an illness, mapping out symptoms with empirical care. Things have been very active in the past few years.

The London-based Institute of Trichilogosts, for instance, determined last year that heavy drinking can prevent hair loss because it blocks the absorption of testosterone in the liver. Testosterone is thought to cause baldness.

“How many alcoholics are ever bald?” the English researchers asked. Doctors in India, in a separate study, agreed.

French doctors, on the other hand, recently theorized that baldness is caused by a scalp infection and should be treated with antibiotics. The National Academy of Sciences casts the blame on estrogen, which causes hair “to rest” rather than grow – at least in mice. The Journal of Andrology, however, linked baldness with high testosterone levels.

It’s the genes, said researchers in Oregon. No, it’s a thickened galea (scalp), said another set of thinkers who believe the blood vessels can’t nourish the hair follicles. Other researchers have recently linked baldness with coronary disease and prostate cancer, among other things.

A new double-strength Rogaine solution is in the works for folks who favor a rub-on cure. Those who want to sew one on are also in luck. According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, about 330,000 men got hair transplants last year, accounting for a third of all cosmetic-surgery procedures.

Things go a little haywire after that.

For the intrepid, New York plastic surgeon Anthony Pignataro offers “prosthetic hair,” a toupee held in place by titanimum and gold snaps imbedded into a person’s skull.


There are hair weaves, hairpieces, botanical hair thickeners, scalp cleaners, follicle stimulants and even Couvre, a scalp cosmetic that comes in seven shades to mask the shine of a balding pate.

Professional hoaxer Joey Skaggs, who fooled CNN into believing he had a special computer program that could predict the outcome of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, also took on hair loss a few years back.

Mr. Skaggs pretended to operate a company called HairToday Ltd. Their specialty? Hair transplants from cadavers. It got considerable coverage on TV and in print, right along with Mr. Skaggs’ claim that his “Celebrity Sperm Bank” had been robbed.

Is there a voice of wisdom in all this? Perhaps.

“We’re not going to lose one hair on our heads over pills or anything else,” said Mr. Capps of Bald-Headed Men of America. “Our motto is `bald is beautiful.’ That’s the best philosophy of all.”

>>> View more: Few drugs head off baldness – Dermatologists share facts about stopping hair loss

Few drugs head off baldness – Dermatologists share facts about stopping hair loss

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We’ve all seen the ads: A balding man examines his shiny head in the mirror, his mood receding as rapidly as his hairline.

Enter his trusted (and thick-haired) friend, who presents him with a “foolproof” hair-growth elixir. Several months later, the same man looks into the same mirror, this time, running his fingers though a full head of hair.

Unfortunately, say health-care professionals, that scenario is closer to science fiction than medical fact. Although several new drugs have been proved effective at preventing hair loss and growing small amounts of new hair, it’s best to steer clear of products promising the impossible.

What can you do if you’re losing your hair?

One of the best ways to prevent hair loss is to catch it soon after it begins, said dermatologist Jafar Koupaie of the Boston Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Center in Brookline. “Once the hair falls out, it usually takes between six months and several years for the follicle to die,” he said. “If somebody’s had hair loss for 25 years, treatment with drugs is a waste of time.”

When it comes to drug treatment two options are available. The first, minoxidil (sold under the brand name Rogaine) is available over the counter. The second, finasteride (Propecia) is available by prescription only. Both have their pluses and minuses, say dermatologists.


Rogaine, sold in 2 percent and 5 percent concentrations, is applied topically to the scalp. As the product reaches the hair root, it increases blood circulation to the follicle, Koupaie said. The end result is that hair gets more “nutrition” and is less likely to fall out.

In addition, a small percentage of users will experience some new hair growth.

Still, doctors say, the drug does have its downside. “Because it’s applied topically it’s difficult to get enough of the drug to the right areas,” said Dr. Joop M. Grevelink, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The new 5 percent solution is a little better for this, but it’s still a problem.”

The stronger solution, however, might also cause skin irritation for some patients, Grevelink said.

“Another thing I don’t like about it is that patients have to use it twice a day,” he said. “It reminds you of your hair loss twice a day. I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

Those using Rogaine should also be aware that the drug takes up to six months to become effective, said Dr. Michael Pugliese of Dermatology Associates in Concord. “And even if you are successful in inducing hairs to grow artificially, you have to keep using it to maintain those hairs. When you stop, you’ll lose the new hair as well as continue losing your own hair.”

Propecia, on the market since early 1998, is the other option.

Unlike Rogaine, which stimulates hair follicles, Propecia actually inhibits the hormone that causes most male-pattern baldness. In addition, it works to stimulate new hair growth in some users.

Among the advantages of Propecia, doctors say, is that its oral, once-a-day format makes it a more user-friendly option.

Although those taking Propecia are faced with the same dilemma as Rogaine users – namely that hair loss will continue when the drug isn’t taken – Propecia users have six months to a year before the hair loss reverts to its previous pattern, Grevelink said.


Both Rogaine and Propecia are considered safe drugs, with few side effects. Rogaine is not recommended for people with low blood pressure; Propecia has been shown to cause impotence in about 2 percent of its users.

Propecia is not FDA-approved for women and should be avoided by women in child-bearing years, because it is thought to cause birth defects.

“We do give it to some post-menopausal women on a compassionate basis,” Grevelink said. “But we would not prescribe it to a woman who could become pregnant.”

Though hair loss is often a normal part of the aging process, Koupaie warns that it can also signal certain illnesses. Those with no family history of hair loss and those experiencing sudden hair loss could be suffering from disorders ranging from anemia to thyroid dysfunction.

“There is a lot of advertisement about hair loss and hair replacement, and at many of these places (that offer hair-loss treatment) there isn’t a physician available.

“It’s always a good idea to see a doctor before starting any program,” Koupaie said.

>>> Click here: RETIRING DOGS OF WAR; After deployments to the Mideast many times, two German shepherds will stay with their military handlers as pets and one is adopted by a Louisiana family

RETIRING DOGS OF WAR; After deployments to the Mideast many times, two German shepherds will stay with their military handlers as pets and one is adopted by a Louisiana family

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TAMPA — Conny has cataracts and glaucoma but a nose that knows no bounds. In Iraq, during one of five Mideast deployments, she found 175 pounds of explosives under a hut. – The 10-year-old military working dog has sniffed out improvised explosive devices, mortar shells, AK-47s and sniper rifles, making war a little less hazardous for humans. – Her next mission? – Retirement.

“I’ve got her a pink collar and everything,” said Senior Airman Brandon Denton of the 6th Security Forces Squadron, who served as Conny’s handler and will now keep her as a pet.

Three longtime military dogs – German shepherds with more than 200 combined dog years of service – retired Thursday at MacDill Air Force Base, after deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and Germany. In all, the dogs have served on 41 Secret Service missions, base officials report.


Jago, 10, went home with handler Brett Carson, also a senior airman at MacDill.

“He’s the first and only dog I’ve had in the military, and I decided to give him a good life after the service,” said Carson, 27.

Haris, 11, left with a retired flight surgeon and his wife, Randel and Shelli Patty, who drove from Baton Rouge, La., to adopt him.

Adoption of military working dogs, whether by police agencies, handlers or civilians, is permitted under Robby’s Law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Many go to handlers.

Haris’ handler, Air Force Sgt. Jarvis Beauchamp, 24, got orders to Italy before Haris was put up for adoption. They’ve been together three years. “He’s taught me a lot,” Beauchamp said.

He knows how many allergies Haris has: 36, including dust mites and meat. He knows the dog takes a supplement to prevent hair loss.

Beauchamp will miss the way Haris pouts by sitting with his back turned.

Tears? “Not yet,” the sergeant said. “I’m not saying they’re not coming.”

He’s comforted knowing Haris is headed to a good home, with an open invitation to visit. This is the fourth military dog adopted by the Pattys, who take in four-legged heroes one at a time, letting their last years be in a home with a pool and a choice of four orthopedic dog beds. Haris will get 2-mile walks morning and night, Shelli Patty said.

Jago, like the others, logged thousands of patrols. He also found a 4-year-old child missing from base housing.

It was only recently that keepers realized Jago was blind in the left eye, apparently since birth.

“He has a great nose and ears,” Senior Airman Carson said.

Still, the disability was enough to end Jago’s career.

Like many of the handlers, Carson grew up with dogs.

So did Denton. Some people join the military for jets. Denton joined for dogs, he jokes.

He said his biggest challenge will be to get Conny to stop working and just be a dog.

Thursday morning, her new life began.

Scores of humans gathered for a ceremony.

Conny stood the straightest during the Star-Spangled Banner, her eyes darting around the room as the dogs and handlers faced the audience.

O’er the ramparts we watched …

Haris yawned.

And the rocket’s red glare …

A camera clicked. Conny’s head swung. Jago turned his good eye toward Haris, then back to the crowd.

There were speeches and applause. Soon, there would be dog treats shaped like cupcakes, hypoallergenic for Haris’ sake.


One by one, the dog handlers of MacDill Air Force Base marched down a center aisle.

They stopped. They paused.

They looked at three dogs.

And they saluted.

Patty Ryan can be reached at or (813) 226-3382.


PHOTO – KATHLEEN FLYNN – Times: Senior Airman Brandon Denton, a 6th Security Forces Squadron dog handler, gets face time Thursday with Conny, a 10-year-old German shepherd, before her retirement ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base. Conny worked in Afghanistan and Iraq.

PHOTO – KATHLEEN FLYNN – Times: Senior Airman Brandon Denton, left, stands with Conny, Senior Airman Brett Carson stands with Jago, middle, and Air Force Sgt. Jarvis Beauchamp stands with Harisduring a retirement ceremony for the military working dogs at MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday.

PHOTO – KATHLEEN FLYNN – Times: Jago, a 10-year-old German shepherd, is being retired because only recently handlers learned he is blind in the left eye. He is going home with handler Brett Carson, a senior airman at MacDill.