Update: A year after I wrote this post, Dr. Chunyu Han was discredited.
On this blog, while I have mentioned gene therapy and gene modification a number of times in the past. Especially when it comes to the now ubiquitous CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing method. However, I have hardly discussed its application towards a cure for hair loss. The main reason has been due to my feeling that a genetic modification based cure for hair loss in adults is still a long way away (but perhaps not that far off when it comes to embryos).
This feeling of mine is shared by virtually all online hair loss forum members that have shared an opinion about this issue. It also seems like more than a few genes could be involved in balding (e.g., see the excellent diagram in this recent hair loss gene research, which shows two of those genes — GRID1 and AR/EDA2R). It should be noted that if certain national governments turn a blind eye towards experimental genetic therapy treatments, we could see faster results.
A person would have to be exceedingly depressed by hair loss if he/her were to take such a severe step such as gene modification to cure or revere hair loss. I would not want to modify my genes to cure hair loss until it has been done safely on other adults for at least ten years with no unforeseen side effects. Even then, I might never go through with it, although this is all a moot point if a non-genetic cure for hair loss arrives by the end of 2020.
Dr. Chunyu Han, NgAgo and Hair Loss
In any event, recently some important news came out of China regarding a genome-editing treatment for hair loss, and the work seems reliable. A 42-year old scientist by the name of Dr. Chunyu Han from Hebei University of Science and Technology made this discovery. The most interesting thing is that this scientist discovered and is using a technique called Natronobacterium gregoryi Argonaute (NgAgo) that could end up being even better than CRISPR!
For more, read “whether NgAgo could challenge CRISPR.” NgAgo is a DNA-guided genome editing technique, whereas the mainstream CRISPR technique involves RNA-guided genome editing. Dr. Han’s original paper on this work was presented at MIT and has subsequently led to a great deal of excitement in the scientific community. Coincidentally, one of the co-inventors of the CRISPR technology is also a Chinese-born scientist by the name of Dr. Feng Zhang.
Going back to the above article, the following quote from Dr. Han is very encouraging:
“With this technique, middle-aged men with bald heads can probably regain their hair through genetic repair.”
That is huge. We all know how difficult it is to recover hair that has been lost for a long time. Yet, this respected scientist whose work is now being discussed in detail at universities such as MIT suggests this is not true. It should be noted that Dr. Han also states the following:
“Although the science is currently futuristic.”
— I cannot believe that an esteemed scientist such as Dr. Han is discussing how his new gene modification technique could cure hair loss. The lead scientists behind CRISPR or any other such breakthrough technologies in the western world would never focus significant time on a cosmetic problem. In fact people would start to doubt there credibility if they shifted focus away from major diseases to cosmetic problems.
— Even more surprising, Dr. Han is not losing his hair, so does not have a personal interest in the subject. Of course I am not complaining about any of this. It is very pleasing that a renowned scientist is focusing global media attention on hair loss.
— It is also wonderful news that Dr. Han’s NgAgo discovery could reduce the significance of the patent controversy (and even worse, a potential patent monopoly) that the western world has become obsessed with when it comes to CRISPR. Also see this 2014 article on the original controversy.
— Dr. Han claims that his NgAgo technique does not pose dangers of a person getting cancer, while this is not true of CRISPR. I have not tried to verify this point.
— And finally, according to the original article about Dr. Han that I linked to at the top of this post:
“To cut costs he and his team had to use discarded beverage bottles in the laboratory and struggled under a debt of more than 300,000 yuan ($45,870).”