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Alopecia Awareness Month – why it matters

Professor Ralf Paus

Author: Professor Ralf Paus

Inflammatory Hair Disease Programme Lead

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In his blog, NIHR Manchester BRC Inflammatory Hair Disease programme lead, Professor Ralf Paus, discusses the importance of our alopecia research.

Alopecia Awareness Month, which has been taking place throughout September, may be drawing to a close, but I wanted to take the opportunity to explain what alopecia is and how research can change the lives of people who have it.

Alopecia areata is one of the most common forms of inflammatory hair disease. It is an autoimmune condition, whereby the immune system – which normally protects the body from viruses and bacteria – mistakenly attacks the hair follicles.

Inflammatory hair loss currently has no consistently effective treatment and can have a severe effect on quality of life and emotional health. Also, the hair loss seen can sometimes, but not always, be permanent.

Our researchers are making strides towards understanding the causes of alopecia so as to be better able to treat it, which would make a huge difference to those affected by hair loss disorders.

While at one time hair loss may have been considered a purely cosmetic condition, I and my BRC colleagues see the severe psychological impacts it can have first-hand, with our patients attesting to how it affects their confidence, relationships and self-worth.

Until they are afflicted by hair loss themselves, many people don’t fully understand the massive psychosocial importance hair has in our society. Also, consumer – and industry – interest in manipulating one’s hair growth, shape, or colour is as old as recorded human history.

What’s more fascinating though, is that the miraculously small hair follicle behaves like an independent, tiny organ within the skin, with its own functioning immune system. This provides a superb model system in which to study many of the most fundamental problems of modern biomedicine, ranging from stem cell biology, to how our immune system interacts with human tissue in health and disease.

Therefore, the BRC’s Inflammatory Hair Disease Programme uses the specific disorders it studies to also uncover new general principles of how human tissues are regulated in health and disease.

Indeed, lots of ground-breaking research is taking place within the hair loss programme – enabled by our NIHR BRC infrastructure – which connects world-leading researchers, universities and NHS trusts.

Recently, the results of study undertaken in my laboratory at the University of Manchester were published in the journal, EMBO Molecular Medicine. Researchers, including Dr Talveen Purba, who was lead author on the study, determined a new way to protect the hair follicle from chemotherapy in an effort to prevent hair loss as a result of cancer treatments. You can read more from Talveen on the University of Manchester website.

In other good news from the theme, our deputy programme lead and Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Matthew Harries, was nominated for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Hair Research’ at the Hair Science Awards.

While Dr Leila Asfour, who works alongside Matt at Salford Royal Hospital as a Dermatology Specialist Registrar, has been awarded more than £8,000 by the British Skin Foundation to study permanent hair loss caused by cancer treatment.