“Cure for grey hair is on its way say scientists,” the Daily Mirror reports, with The Daily Telegraph adding that grey hair will become ‘a thing of the past’.
You may be surprised to learn that the study the media reports on had absolutely nothing to do with grey hair. In fact, the stories were loosely based on a tiny study into what happens in a common skin condition called vitiligo. Vitiligo causes depigmentation (loss of colour) of the skin, leading to white patches on the skin and hair.
The current study included 10 people with what is called ‘segmental’ vitiligo, where the condition affects the area of skin supplied by a particular nerve. They found that changes in skin colour were accompanied by the accumulation of two chemicals in the skin: hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite.
The researchers then demonstrated that using a compound that when exposed to ultraviolet light was known to reduce hydrogen peroxide levels led to white patches on skin and eyelashes becoming repigmented.
While the results of the study could theoretically be extrapolated as providing a potential treatment for grey hair, much more research is required to see if such a treatment would be both safe and effective.
This study does offers possible hope of a treatment for segmental vitiligo though, again, further research is required.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from E. M. Arndt University, Germany and the University of Bradford, UK. It was funded by the American Vitiligo Research Foundation and by private donations.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) journal.
This story was poorly reported in the media, with all headlines speculating that the findings could lead to a cure for grey hair. The current study did not investigate the causes of, or possible treatments of, grey hair. However, the research focused on vitiligo, specifically looking at segmental vitiligo.
Though the blame for the poor reporting of the study can be put at the door of the press office of the FASEB, which issued a press release almost entirely focused on the grey hair angle. This is a textbook example of public relations officers ‘sexing up’ a dry but worthy piece of research in order to gain maximum media coverage. And – credit where credit is due – they did an excellent job of that. Unfortunately, in doing so they obscured the truth.
Whether peer-reviewed journals should be engaging in these types of disingenuous practises, which arguably damage the public understanding of science, is a matter of debate. However, FASEB are not alone in this, as recent research found that academics, journals and news reporters all share the blame for the spin found in around half of all medical reporting.
What kind of research was this?
This was a laboratory study and case series report into the mechanics of the skin condition vitiligo and whether learning more about it could lead to new treatments.
Vitiligo can be divided into two forms: segmental and nonsegmental vitiligo. Nonsegmental vitiligo is the more common, in which the white patches that appear are symmetrical (the same places on both sides of the body, for example both hands could be affected). In nonsegmental vitiligo, two chemicals – hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite – accumulate in the skin.
Nonsegmental vitiligo can be treated with a pseudocatalase, which is activated by narrow-band UVB light. This reduces the concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, allowing the lost skin colour to return.
In the less common segmental form of vitiligo, the affected skin lies in a dermatome, which is a particular area of skin supplied by a single nerve, so it usually affects only one side of the body.
Segmental and non-segmental vitiligo can also co-exist, giving rise to ‘mixed’ vitiligo.
This study aimed to see whether the accumulation of hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite which occurs in nonsegmental vitiligo also occurs in segmental vitiligo, and if so, if the light activated pseudocatalase could also be of use in segmental vitiligo.
The laboratory study is the ideal study design to investigate the mechanism behind segmental vitiligo. However, the treatment was only tested in a very small number of people with vitiligo. Well-conducted trials involving much larger numbers of people are needed before it can be determined how effective it is.
What did the research involve?
The researchers looked to see whether hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite (and the oxidation products produced when these chemicals react with other molecules in the cell) are present in the skin of people with segmental vitiligo. To do this they examined four people with segmental vitiligo and six people with mixed vitiligo (where the person has both segmental vitiligo and nonsegmental vitiligo). For comparison, they selected five healthy controls matched for age and skin type.
The researchers then determined whether treatment with narrow-band UVB activated pseudocatalase, which reduces the levels of hydrogen peroxide, could allow repigmentation.
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite (and substances that are formed by reactions of these chemicals with molecules in the cell), are present in the skin of people with segmental vitiligo.
The researchers report that treatment with narrow-band UVB activated pseudocatalase, which reduces the levels of hydrogen peroxide, allowed repigmentation of the skin and eyelashes of five people with vitiligo regardless of whether they had segmental vitiligo only, or in association with nonsegmental vitiligo.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that their findings, “offer new treatment intervention for lost skin and hair colour”.
This study aimed to investigate whether two chemicals – hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite – accumulate in the skin of people with segmental vitiligo, which affects up to a quarter of people with vitiligo.
They then looked at whether treatment with a light-activated pseudocatalase, that reduces the concentration of hydrogen peroxide, would allow the lost skin colour to return.
They found that the treatment was successful in five people with segmental vitiligo (either isolated or in combination with nonsegmental). The study offers hope of a possible treatment for segmental vitiligo, although so far it has been tested in only very few patients.
Well-conducted trials in much larger numbers of people will be needed before it can be determined how effective it is.
Although previous research has demonstrated that hydrogen peroxidase also accumulates in grey hair follicles, this study did not look at whether treatment with pseudocatalases or other substances could be used to treat grey hair.
For this rather fundamental reason, it is not possible to say from this study whether or not there could be a cure for grey hair.
However, the potential market for an effective hair colouring treatment is huge: recent figures show that the hair dye market is essentially recession-proof. It would be surprising if this study did not lead to further research into the applications of the techniques used in the study.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
Daily Mirror, 7 May 2013
The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 2013
The Independent, 6 May 2013
Sky News, 6 May 2013
Links to the science
The FASEB Journal. Published online April 29 2013