Can these Technion students cure baldness?

University team aces international competition with an enzyme that promises to stop male pattern alopecia

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

The Technion's winning iGEM team (Facebook)
The Technion's winning iGEM team (Facebook)

When 25-year-old Technion student Alexey Tomsov needed to come up with a project for the prestigious iGEM synthetic biology competition, he decided to untangle a problem close to home.

“My dad is bald, and I noticed my own hair is starting to thin,” said the recent graduate in biotechnology and food engineering. “I thought, ‘What can I do about this?’”

Tomsov looked at the products on the market and felt that none met his needs. A drug called Finasteride reduces hair loss but can cause serious sexual side effects. Other solutions are still in the research stages. Tomsov wanted to develop a topical solution that stops hair loss without affecting the rest of the patient’s body.

Male pattern baldness, also known as androgenetic alopecia, affects up to 70 percent of men and is believed to be caused by a derivative of testosterone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Tomsov and his team genetically engineered Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium found naturally on the scalp, to secrete 3α-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down DHT. They also genetically engineered E. coli to enable the enzymatic reaction to take place. Using a comb, the two genetically engineered bacteria can be combined, causing a reaction that breaks down DHT on the scalp.

The Technion iGEM team traveled to Massachusetts in September for the 2015 international iGEM synthetic biology competition, where they competed with 259 undergraduate and high school teams from around the world. The team won an iGEM 2015 Jamboree gold medal and first-place prize for Best New Application.

 Yael Annis, Maayan Lufton and Alexey Tomsov present at the iGEM conference in September (Facebook)
Yael Annis, Maayan Lufton and Alexey Tomsov present at the iGEM conference in September (Facebook)

From students to startup entrepreneurs

Tomsov and his team of nine other students, Yael Annis, Tal Ofek, Roni Cohen, Adi Yannai, Ruth Veksler, Liron Abrahami, Ma’ayan Lufton, Nitzan Shmuel and Sagi Sheinkman, won’t have to search for jobs after graduation.

They have received an undisclosed amount of funding and assistance from the Technion to patent their technology and turn it into a startup.

“We still have more experiments to do before we can receive approval for human trials. We can’t say at this stage how effective our product is or any questions regarding the stages of baldness it will cure.”

But if successful, will the Technion students have discovered a cure for human baldness?

“This is a big statement,” says Tomsov, “but yes, let’s hope so.”

If so, it would be quite a breakthrough. Entire movie plots, like that of the 2009 thriller “Duplicity,” have revolved around the potential discovery of a cure for baldness. Tomsov says he expects the product will more likely help people who are just beginning to go bald rather than people who have been bald for many years.

“When the hair follicle deteriorates and shuts down there’s nothing we can do. When a person has been bald for ten years I’m not sure there’s a solution on the market aside from surgery.”

If readers want to be part of the clinical trials, they can contact the team through its Facebook page and will be notified if and when these trials begin.

As part of their market research, the Technion team surveyed men and women about their perceptions of baldness. The results among women were inconclusive, but the Technion students did find that a large percentage of men, especially young men, find the prospect of losing their hair upsetting.

Asked why, Tomsov replies, “it has something to do with their sense of pride, but we don’t have an answer. [Psychology] is not our field of study.”

Tomsov says that all ten members of the team are enormously proud of their accomplishment in the competition as well as the “pride we brought to Israel.”

Does this mean that Israel will provide the world’s answer to baldness and that boycotters of the country could find themselves hirsutely challenged?

Tomsov laughs. “Let’s hope we have peace by then.”

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