Baldness and white hair caused by a high fat western diet could one day be cured by a daily pill, a new study found.
The experimental drug successfully reversed hair loss, hair whitening and skin inflammation previous linked to a human diets heavy in fat and cholesterol in mice.
The compound halted the production of certain fats called glycosphingolipids, or GSLs, that are major components of skin and other cell membranes.
Mice fed a fatty bad diet are more likely to have hair discolouration from black to grey to white, extensive hair loss and inflammation of skin exhibited by multiple wounds.
But giving the mice the compound reversed these symptoms.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore cautioned the same effect may not happen in humans and the drug may not be safe.
But the findings shed light on possible pathways for addressing hair loss and skin wounds in humans with oral or topical medications.
Professor of paediatrics Subroto Chatterjee said: “Our findings show that a Western diet causes hair loss, hair whitening and skin inflammation in mice, and we believe a similar process occurs in men who lose hair and experience hair whitening when they eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol.
“Hopefully someday in the future this can mean faster, more effective recovery from baldness, hair whitening in ageing populations and wound healing,”
Previous studies found GSLs are prevalent in the cells that make up the uppermost layer of the skin, as well as in cells called keratinocytes that help regulate pigmentation of the eyes, skin and hair.
The new study investigated how disrupting GSLs might affect skin appearance and colour.
The man-made compound D-threo-1-phenyl-2-decanoylamino-3-morpholino-1-propanol (D-PDMP) halts GSL production so the team explored whether it would reverse any negative effects.
The experiments used mice with atherosclerosis, a disease in which arteries are clogged by fat deposits.
One group was fed a Western diet high in fat and cholesterol while the second had regular chow for eight weeks until they were aged 20 weeks .
The mice on a western diet suffered hair loss and whitening and formed skin lesions and these got worse when they continued with the bad diet for 36 weeks, with three quarters of the mice having skin, hair loss and multiple skin lesions.
From 20 to 36 weeks of age, mice in both groups were given varying amounts of D-PDMP, either in a capsule or as a liquid, while they ate the same diet.
Mice that received 1 milligram and 10 milligrams of D-PDMP in a capsule per kilogram of body weight from 20 to 36 weeks while eating a Western diet started regaining hair and hair colour, and their skin inflammation lessened.
And treatment with the capsule was as effective as the liquid suggesting given the drug in tablet form was best .
When scientists looked at the mice’s skin under the microscope, those on the western diet experienced an infiltration of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell implicated in inflammation, in various areas.
Yet D-PDMP capsules significantly reduced the number of neutrophils, implying reduced skin inflammation and wounding.
Mass spectrometry analysis, a method of identifying and quantifying the chemical composition of a mixture, was also used to determine ceramide, glucosylceramide and lactosylceramide levels in the mice.
Ceramides are a type of lipid, or fat, that helps protect the skin’s moisture, and glucosylceramide is the first derivative of ceramide, whereas lactosylceramide, a later derivative of ceramide, activates inflammation.
Mice on the bad diet had decreased total ceramide levels, decreased glucosylceramide and nearly three times more lactosylceramide.
But treatment with D-PDMP noticeably increased ceramide levels to normal.
Further tests are needed to determine how well and what amount of D-PDMP might heal wounds and activate hair growth.
But Prof Chatterjee said: “Further research is needed, but our findings show promise for someday using the drug we developed for skin diseases such as psoriasis, and wounds resulting from diabetes or plastic surgery.”
The study was published in Scientific Reports.
By Ben Gelblum and Tony Whitfield