- “Sonic hedgehog” is a protein that regulates how cells become specialized and differentiate.
- Animal and lab tests have found that it can regrow hair on mice and in human cells.
- However, we’re quite a long way from using genetic engineering to revive your hairline.
As we use maps of the human genome and new tools like CRISPR to experiment, we’re learning much more about the body and finding exciting new treatments. One of them uses a protein named after a video game character to recover hair. Here’s what you should know about “sonic hedgehog” and hair loss.
What Is “Sonic Hedgehog?”
“Sonic hedgehog” is a protein encoded by the SHH gene. It gets the hedgehog name from what happens when you “knock it out” in a lab; the fruit flies without it were covered in pointy spikes, similar to the adorable spiny mammal.
The “sonic” is a tribute to the video game character. One of the geneticists was debating which hedgehog to name the protein after when his wife came home with a gaming magazine, and the rest is history.
In general, it’s responsible for cell differentiation as fetuses grow. Think of it as sort of the genetic “supervisor” for growing mammals, figuring out where the various systems go, how far they should grow, and so on. Every one of us can thank this protein for how we turned out.
What Does Sonic Hedgehog Have To Do With Hair Loss?
To understand that, we first have to understand how we lose hair. Hair follicles generally die off because they lose blood circulation and don’t have the stem cells to regenerate. This can be due to the action of androgens on the body or because the follicle is injured somehow, such as through a scar or a burn.
If that weren’t enough, the hair follicles you’re born with are the ones you have all throughout your life. If you lose one, it’s not going to grow back. This is why even people without male pattern baldness will experience some thinning and hair loss. Sheer attrition will wear down any hairline.
That’s where this protein comes in. Researchers were wondering if it could be used to re-differentiate hair follicles in skin, turning back the clock on skin and bringing them back to life. And, sure enough, in mice studies, it worked.
This has implications beyond your hairline, as it proves that protein signals can revive even scarred or burned skin. And, just as important, it was found they could narrowly target the hair follicle, leaving the rest of the skin alone.
Other experiments using human cells “on the bench” were equally successful. So, how close are we to using this science to get your hairline back? Well, probably not as close as you’d like.
Will I Be Able To Use Sonic Hedgehog Treatments To Reverse My Hair Loss?
Unfortunately, treatments with the sonic hedgehog protein are a long way off from your doctor’s office or store shelves.
To start with, there need to be several phases of human trials before a drug is approved, and as of this writing, there’s no such trial planned, let alone a drug candidate picked.
There are excellent reasons for that. The same protein that regrows your hair can, in other scenarios, cause cancer. Another concern is risk to developing fetuses, which offers its own set of testing concerns.
Before a single person can take a pill or rub an ointment where they want hair back, pharmaceutical companies are going to be very sure it’s not going to be harmful to them. That means more studies, which take time.
Secondly, it’s not clear that this treatment would be available to people with androgenic alopecia at first. Since the technique was developed to treat scarred skin, the initial focus may be on developing medications that help injured people regrow injured skin with minimal scarring.
Finally, there’s the very real possibility that this may not work in human trials. Any number of drugs that are promising in animal studies and on the bench turn out to be duds when they leave the lab. That would send anybody developing treatments back to the drawing board, although at least they’d go back with more knowledge than when they started.
In short, if we get this as a hair loss treatment at all, it may be a decade or more before it arrives. That doesn’t mean you’ll lack options while you wait, however.
What Can I Do To Treat My Hair Loss?
While you’re waiting for revolutionary hair loss treatments, you do have a few options to consider in the meantime.
- Finasteride (Propecia). Finasteride is an androgen blocker designed to slow hair loss by limiting the action of androgens like dihydrogen testosterone on your hair follicles. Since it’s widely available in both generic and brand-name forms and has been on the market since 1992, it’s a well-tested medication that can be prescribed with a telehealth consultation.
- Minoxidil (Rogaine). Loss of circulation to your scalp is what kills off hair follicles. Minoxidil is a vasodilator that opens up blood vessels and brings vital circulation back to your scalp. Also on the market for decades, it’s well understood and generally effective.
- Hair transplant surgery. This technique takes hair from where you have it and relocates it to places where you don’t. It doesn’t require a hospital stay, but it can be painful, and you’ll have to work to protect the hair once it’s in place. It also may not be covered by your insurance.
- Laser therapy. A process to use laser light to improve hair density is showing some promise. That said, it has yet to be studied with the scientific rigor it needs to be considered a credible therapy, and it also isn’t covered by insurance.
Ready to treat your hair loss now? Don’t wait for science to catch up with your needs. Visit our hair restoration page to learn how eDrugstore can help.
Dan is a long-time freelance writer focusing on technology, science, health, and medicine, with a lifelong interest in physics, biology, and medicine. His work has taken a particular focus on scientific studies “beyond the headlines,” reading the study to more closely examine the results.