Scientists reverse hair loss by making scalp "smell" sandalwood

It turns out the human scalp has an olfactory receptor that seems to play a crucial role in regulating hair follicle growth and death.

Photo: malehmann via Flickr
  • Scientists treated scalp tissue with a chemical that mimics the odor of sandalwood.
  • This chemical bound to an olfactory receptor in the scalp and stimulated hair growth.
  • The treatment could soon be available to the public.

A synthetic chemical that mimics the odor of sandalwood could be the key to reversing hair loss, new research suggests. In a paper published in Nature on September 18, scientists describe how they were able to stimulate hair follicle growth and slow cell death by essentially getting scalp tissue to "smell" a sandalwood odorant called Sandalore. The unusual finding is explained by the existence of a particular olfactory receptor in the scalp, OR2AT4, to which Sandalore binds and promotes hair growth.

"This is actually a rather amazing finding," senior researcher and dermatologist Ralf Paus from the University of Manchester in the U.K. told The Independent. "This is the first time ever that it has been shown that the remodelling of a normal human mini-organ [a hair] can be regulated by a simple, cosmetically widely-used odorant."

A possible "olfactotherapy" treatment

Sandalore, which is used in perfumes and skin cleaners, is known to have unusually effective wound-healing properties because it interacts with certain kinds of olfactory receptors in the skin. With this in mind, the researchers hypothesized that the chemical could have similar effects on hair follicles.

To find out, the team treated samples of human scalp skin with Sandalore and found that it stimulated a hair-growth factor called IGF-1 when it bound to the olfactory receptor OR2AT4. As further evidence that OR2AT4 plays a key role in hair growth, the researchers showed that hair follicles died more quickly when they "silenced" the receptor.

While it's still unclear whether Sandalore could continuously stimulate hair growth over a long-term period, Paus said the chemical could soon be offered as an "olfactotherapy" treatment for hair loss, a condition that affects about 80 million men and women in the U.S.

"Sandalore is already offered as a cosmetic product in Italy by the company that has co-sponsored the current study," Paus told The Independent. "A very small, short and preliminary clinical pilot study performed by an independent CRO [contract research organization] in 20 female volunteers with topical Sandalore has already suggested a reduction of daily hair loss."

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