A synthetic compound that mimics the smell of sandalwood encourages human scalp tissue in the lab to maintain hair growth, researchers report today (September 18) in Nature Communications. The chemical works by triggering an odor receptor in hair follicles, which decreases rates of cell death and boosts the production of a growth factor.
“This is actually a rather amazing finding,” coauthor Ralf Paus of the University of Manchester tells 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.”
Paus and his colleagues had zeroed in on the receptor OR2AT4, as previous research by some of the same scientists had found that it was present in human skin and could stimulate the growth of cells known as keratinocytes when exposed to the sandalwood compound during wound healing in vitro.
“Given the intimate connections between hair growth and wound healing,” the researchers explain in their latest report, they decided to apply the chemical to pieces of human scalp, taken from people getting facelifts, for six days in the lab. Compared with untreated tissue, not only did the hair follicles die off more slowly, which prevents hair loss, but they produced more growth factor. Paus’s group determined that OR2AT4 was required for the changes because blocking it inhibited hair growth.
Nicola Clayton of the British Association of Dermatologists who was not involved in the study tells The Independent, “It is a fascinating concept that the human hair follicle, as the authors put it, can ‘smell’ by utilising an olfactory receptor.”
Paus, who consults for a company that has filed a patent on the use of OR2AT4-targeting compounds for hair loss, says there are now clinical trials underway to test the concept in humans.