Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hair raising tales

Going bald upsets a lot of people, mostly men. Everyone looses hair as they get older, but some men in particular loose most if not all of it in what is called male pattern baldness.

Male pattern baldness is the number one reason (when I looked a few years ago) that men are having cosmetic surgery in America. These days a hair transplant doesn't leave you a head like a cheaply woven Chinese doll. No more giant plugs of hair in little plantations, hair is transplanted in tiny, naturally occurring little groups. It is, naturally, very costly. But it works. Hair moved from the back of the head doesn't wilt and die like the stuff that lived on the top. The only problem is that for many men, they simply do not have enough hair at the back of their heads to replace what has been lost at the front and top.

But, you've guessed it, science comes leaping into the room to offer a solution. Intercytex, a Manchester-based company thinks it can create new hair, something described in this week's article in The Economist. Don't get too excited. For whatever reason, the UK authorities have decided that Intercytex's technology is a drug treatment and it must therefore go through trials from phases I to III (it is up to II at the moment). So it will take up to five years before anything appears on the market. But it does offer hope, at last, to the world's baldies.

Regenerative medicine
Hair today, hair tomorrow. A cure for baldness Jun 5th 2008

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Drugs bust

Few correspondents liked our leader line on drugs.

Reader William Rising, from Indonesia, wrote in to raise the issues that we didn't delve into, namely how will society adapt to the changes that cognition enhancing drugs and will it be fair for people to take them in competitive situations. These are important questions but difficult to answer without knowing the specifics of the drugs available and how good they really are. We don't worry about people taking coffee or Ritalin at the moment to improve their performance in exams. Maybe we should.

Dr Giorgio Cometto, from London, says that any argument that likens the use of caffeine to the abuse of drugs that are prescribed for a specific person, reflects "a shallowness of analysis that beggars description".

Trying not to be too shallow, I'd like to point out that millions of people use Viagra every day as a recreational drug and nobody really cares because it is largely harmless. The point of the leader was that before getting upset about new psychoactive drugs, we need to bear in mind that many of them may not be harmful and possibly even quite beneficial.

Jil Hellemann from Warwick says that the question really should be about whether the increasing medicalisation of everyday life is a good thing. "You should have questioned the desirability of a society which makes drug usage a predicate to living 'useful' lives and rendering us all disabled".

Similarly Tuure Pitkänen, from Finaland, says that instead of marveling at new medical breakthroughs I should have contemplated why life has become so intensive that one has to consume psychoactive substances to keep up.

Alagbe Taiwo from Nigeria wonders whether students will simply get more lazy as a result of all the drugs available to boost their brains.

And Lynda Cord, from Australia, dislikes the fact that our leader advocates the use of cognition enhancing drugs and wonders if the person who wrote it was working for the drugs industry.

I'm not, and it is highly unlikely that drugs companies will go to the trouble of getting approval for the sale of cognitive enhancers to the general population. Too much trouble. Far easier, instead, to sit back and watch as people decide for themselves that they would like to take these drugs "off label". Off label means using using medication for a condition that has not been approved by the FDA.

Modafinil was approved as an orphan drug (one for very rare diseases) for narcolepsy, yet today has sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. There simply are not enough narcoleptics to support that kind of volume of sales. Everyone knows that off-label use is rife. Nobody is in much hurry to do anything about it.