March 07, 2008

Frivolous Biotech: Molecular Biology, Follicles and Wii

I'm a science geek. I don't just admit that, I'll proclaim it to whomever wants to listen. That includes putting the results of research to practical applications, and these days a lot of that goes on in the biotech industry. I'm more of a basic research guy myself, but unlike some hardcore sci-geeks, I in no way look down upon those who turn theory into technology. There are a lot of useful things coming from the people who do just that and there's a great deal of promise of more to come. At the same time, I think there should be a sense of priorities as to what issues are addressed. Some things deserve more, and more immediate, attention than others. Curing a few cancers, lupus, birth defects, and a whole range of genetically-based, debilitating or lethal disorders should be at the top of biotech's to-do list.

"Curing" baldness, not so much. I doubt that anyone has ever died as the result of hair loss. Applying the considerable weight of biological research to helping shallow people feel better about themselves just shouldn't be a priority. After all, there are already cosmetic procedures available for those who can't cope with a bit of follicular deficit syndrome, and you know what? Some of us look pretty damned good without strings of keratin sticking out of our heads. Nonetheless, there's money to be made and so some talented scientists are going about curing what isn't a disease instead of putting their efforts into taking on something worthwhile. As far as I'm concerned, these fellow eggheads need to stop goofing off and get back to work.

Biotech turns to hair-loss research

Biotechnology has introduced many wonders to the world. New drugs to treat deadly diseases. Microbes that digest oil spills. Fluorescent fish. Remarkable inventions all.

But what has biotech ever done for bald people?

Some may feel sheepish raising the question, given the weightier problems needing a scientific fix. Hair loss is not a life-threatening condition, concedes Kaiser Permanente dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani. But half the population, both male and female, see their locks thinning by age 50 - and many can't take the loss lightly, Mirmirani said.

"I have tearful patients in my office many times a day," she said. "When they lose their hair, they feel like they've lost their identity."
Well cry me a freakin' river! How about this for a cure; try basing your identity on more than your hairdo. If you're so shallow that your whole identity is tied to your hair, I have one thing to say to you. Life: You're doing it wrong.
That passionate attachment is helping to speed research on new treatments because investors see a potential gold mine in the field. Most health plans don't reimburse for anti-balding drugs or transplants, but many people will pay out of their own pockets even if the cost is a bit hair-raising.

Industry sources estimate that Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on approved drugs for hair loss and hair transplants.
Yeah, that's great. A billion dollars could pretty much eradicate hunger in this country. Think of what it could do for education or any number of other problems. Look, I don't begrudge someone who has lost their hair as the result of real disease the privilege of restoring it, but the vast majority of people who are losing their hair aren't in that group. Aside from the pursuit of cold, hard currency, there's no reason at all to divert man hours away from research on real problems simply to satisfy the vanity of middle-aged men with receding hairlines. Go buy a Ferrari; the world should not turn on your midlife crisis!
That explains why a small but determined bunch of companies and academics are mining the hair shaft for clues to the molecular mechanisms of balding. They're throwing an arsenal of high-tech tools at the condition: genome studies, stem cell stimulation, gene therapy, a type of tissue engineering often called "hair cloning" and even robotics.
Just think of all the superficial crap we could make money from this way! No woman would ever need to be flat-chested again! All American males with the money to afford it could sprout foot-long schlongs for just 732 easy monthly payments of $19.95! Why, the Home Shopping Network will never be the same once we have the ability to turn the entire populace into Barbie and Ken clones! Big sale on perfect skin and genetically-engineered self-esteem this week! How does this not qualify as a frivolous, even stupid, application of a vital technology that ought to be saving lives instead of just helping a bunch of people with too much money and too little self-esteem feel like they have a chance at getting lucky again? Go join the Hair Club, for crying out loud, and get those researchers back to work on something other than assuaging your shriveled little egos!
For a minority of balding people, episodes of hair loss stem from diseases such as skin infections and immune system disorders, or stresses such as surgery and childbirth. Treatments for such hair loss are often geared to fix the underlying cause.

But by far the most common type of hair loss is the slow, inexorable thinning of the locks on a timetable set by genes inherited from the father or mother...

Only two drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat common baldness - Merck's Propecia and Johnson & Johnson's Rogaine (and its generic equivalent, minoxidil).

Propecia, a pill usually prescribed only for men, blocks production of DHT. The mechanism is not fully understood for Rogaine, an over-the-counter solution that is applied to the scalp.

Both drugs can promote regrowth or slow the rate of hair loss for some people, to some extent. But there's plenty of room for improvement.
I see. So we already have treatments for something that isn't even a disease in the first place. Why, then, should we need more of them? Hey you in the labcoat! Get back to work! Don't you have something important to do?
"There is clearly a great need for more treatments for hair growth," said Dr. Vera Price, a UCSF dermatology professor who heads the medical center's hair research center. "Pharmas, the biotech industry, venture capitalists are aware of this huge consumer need and the fact that it represents a multibillion-dollar market."
That there's a demand for something doesn't indicate a real need, just a real demand. Dr. Price, you're spouting nonsense, and most likely because you see grant dollars dancing before your eyes. There is a real need for sufficiently inexpensive enough food to feed the hungry, there's a need for biological remediation of environmental contaminants, there's a need to find treatments for crippling diseases. There's not a need to use molecular biology to treat a purely cosmetic condition and there never will be. Once the necessities are addressed we can afford the luxuries. Removing real human suffering is a necessity; having a full head of hair is a luxury for those that want it.

Some of us, by the way, would be very happy to have a pill we could pop to stop the stuff from growing back in. It's not a big deal, but it would be nice. We're not demanding that the biotech industry give us such a molecular miracle, though. A shaving razor suffices; cosmetic surgery should do the trick for those on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where, again, is this "huge consumer need?" I wonder if Dr. Price would see having a huge plasma television or the latest innovative crappy toy from Apple as necessities, too. That people camped outside of electronics shops all night long to be first in line for the new Wii doesn't make the thing a "need." It's still just a toy, and biotech research aimed at "curing" baldness is no different. How can anyone take a statement like Price's seriously? Oh, yeah, because there could be big bucks involved down the line.
Hair-transplant surgeons take follicles from the back and sides of the head, which seem immune to the balding effects of male hormones, and move them to the crown. The success of transplants has always been limited, however, by the finite amount of hair a patient still has left to move around.
Well heck, just take a graft from some dude's hairy backside and stick it on his head, then. Whatever. The point is, there are already drugs and surgery available for those who have lost their identity along with their hair. No doubt that these people will find themselves once again able to contribute to society when they're not spending every moment worried about sunburned scalps.

The article goes on to describe some of this research and names a few of the companies involved in it. One of them, Follica, Inc., is headquartered in Boston. I think that next time I'm in town, I'm going to stop by and pee in one of their potted plants or something. Well, maybe not. Still, maybe there are enough self-confident, good-looking bald guys like me in the area to picket the place. If they won't listen to our demands, we can always wax our pates and put our heads together in an effort to blind the lot of them if not focus the rays of the sun and burn the place to the ground!

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