UPDATED: Merck drug homes in on new baldness target

Drug developers have a new target to pursue in their search for remedies against baldness, which afflicts most males to some degree. Researchers have uncovered spikes in levels of a protein in samples of bald scalps, and U.S. drug giant Merck ($MRK) and Swiss biotech heavyweight Actelion ($ATLN) have compounds in development for other uses that could inhibit the protein linked to baldness, Bloomberg reports.

University of Pennsylvania dermatologist George Cotsarelis, a rock star among men hoping for a cure for baldness, contributed to the research that found high amounts of the protein prostaglandin D2 synthase in samples of bald scalps from men, Bloomberg reports. Merck's and Actelion's drugs--in late-stage development for treating facial flushing and allergies, respectively--block the protein, but neither company is developing the treatments to stymie baldness. And a Merck spokesperson told the news service that the company hasn't seen clinical evidence that its drug, called laropiprant, prevents baldness.    

Let's stop here and acknowledge that to most, baldness is considered a cosmetic condition, nowhere near as serious as the illnesses typically covered in these pages. Nevertheless, there's a multibillion-dollar market for anti-baldness remedies that has drawn major companies and biotech investors into the hunt for new treatments and possible cures. Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Merck are major players in this market, and UPenn's Cotsarelis is a founder of biotech called Follica that has been testing treatments for baldness and has drawn investments from major venture firms.

Whether inhibition of prostaglandin D2 synthase could lead to a long-sought cure for baldness is a question that will require clinical research, which has not yet been done, and it's unknown whether blocking the protein could help restore growth of hair from dormant follicles in the scalp. It might just be a way of halting the progression of pattern baldness.

"This makes me wonder if this is the pathway," Paradi Mirmirani, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente, told Bloomberg. "In terms of therapeutics, it really opens the door to have someone come in and target these in a very narrow way."

- check out Bloomberg's article
- and the item from MedPage Today

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Follica sees bushy prospects in baldness therapy

Editor's note: This story was updated and clarified to add the word "synthase" after prostaglandin D2, ensuring that readers know that new drug target is the protein called prostaglandin D2 synthase. We apologize for any confusion.