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Hair-raising research could lead to diabetes treatment

Is it possible to conduct research on type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and hair loss at the same time? Absolutely, says Pontus Dunér who after many years of secrecy can now lift the lid on and talk about his promising results.

Pontus Dunér, researcher at Lund University Diabetes Centre. Photo: Sara Liedholm
Pontus Dunér, researcher at Lund University Diabetes Centre. Photo: Sara Liedholm

The common denominator is a protein that Pontus Dunér and his colleagues have worked on intensively in recent years to modify and break down into smaller active components, so-called peptides. Today they have a library of around fifty different peptides, in many cases patented which means that nobody else can use them without permission.  

Some of the peptides have now shown very promising results in both cell and animal testing. On the one hand, they have proven to be able to delay the onset of type 1 diabetes as they seem to protect the beta cells against attacks from the immune system and, on the other, they have been shown to protect the insulin-producing beta cells from harmful effects of high blood sugar, as is the case in type 2 diabetes, as well as providing protection against certain diabetes-related complications.  A remedy (peptide) against hair loss has already been tested on humans and it is hoped that a final product will be released on the market within a few years following further clinical studies.

Hair loss and diabetes?

The link between hair loss and diabetes may seem farfetched, but Pontus Dunér explains that in empirical studies it has been shown that people with chronic diseases often also suffer from hair loss and that men with increased hair loss are more likely to suffer from serious diseases such as diabetes.

“There is also a drug, diazoxide, which was primarily used on children with type 1 diabetes. It is no longer used because the children suffered from excess hair growth”, he says.

A eureka moment

It all started fifteen years ago. It was a typical experiment in which Pontus Dunér, while working on his degree project in professor Anna Hultgårdh Nilsson’s research group, was going to study the effect of the protein osteopontin which is naturally present in the body. They injected different modified variants of the protein under the skin of mice. In a square on their backs they injected common salt and in another square their modified protein. 24 hours later, Pontus and Anna got the shock of their lives when they saw entirely new structures in the square where they had injected the protein. They turned out to be hair follicles!

“It was a eureka moment”, says Pontus Dunér.

However, as they were habitually occupied with research on cardiovascular disease and not on hair, they did not really know what to do, so the discoveries were put to one side.

Very secretive

In 2011, Anna and Pontus, together with Lund University Bioscience, formed the company Follicum and has since then devoted themselves entirely to developing their protein into a remedy against hair loss in collaboration with world-leading researchers.   

Until a year ago, however, Pontus Dunér and his colleagues have been very secretive about what they have been working on in the area of diabetes. The reason for this is the patents for the different peptides that have been surrounded by a great deal of secrecy. Among other things, the process has meant that they have not been able to publish their research results.

The research group consists of staff in both Lund and Malmö although the work has largely taken place all over the world.

“To begin with, we worked completely virtually and purchased the tests we wanted to carry out from Japan, India, Switzerland, Israel and the USA. That is the advantage of the world today; you can select the best research facilities at a good price.”

Now they can speak out and explain that they have come a long way with the process to produce a remedy against hair loss and that they have a promising treatment for diabetics underway.

“Now that we can talk about what we are doing, we have received lots of positive feedback from other researchers at the Lund University Diabetes Centre, it is a wonderful environment”, says Pontus Dunér.

Affects both men and women

Male hair loss is most commonly spoken about but the problem is just as significant in women.

The reasons for hair loss can vary.

“Diffuse hair loss, when a person suffers partial hair loss or in patches, primarily affects women. It may be due to the person experiencing a traumatic event and then, a couple of months after the incident, the person may lose up to one thousand hairs per day. It may also be due to an infectious disease, high fever, pregnancy or childbirth. Or stress. Stress can even lead to a child losing all their hair. It is a horrible experience.”

Other causes may be blood and deficiency disorders, medicines, cancer treatment or chronic diseases such as diabetes, both type 1 and type 2.  

“It is caused by high blood sugar over time, which can be treated. It may also be due to poor blood circulation, a poor immune system or medicines taken for diabetes”, says Pontus Dunér.

Pontus Dunér, researcher at Lund University Diabetes Centre. Photo: Sara Liedholm
Photo: Sara Liedholm

Brings hair follicles back to life

Humans have approximately 100 000 hair follicles on their heads. The hair follicles produce new hair in a cyclical process. During the first growth phase that lasts from two to six years, the hair follicle produces approximately one centimetre of hair per month. Following a shorter transitional phase, the hair follicle enters a one to two month resting phase in which the entire follicle collapses. When a new growth phase begins, the old hair falls out and the hair follicle starts over again. We normally lose around one hundred hairs every day.

One problem that often affects men is that the strands of hair get stuck in the rest phase.

“They are not dead but they are stuck in the resting phase. In the end, the hair falls out but does not grow back. The hair follicles still function, it is simply a question of finding a way to bring them back to life…”

And that is exactly what their remedy against hair loss does!

Better results

Their recently completed study on 60 thin-haired men, who were treated with the remedy three times per week for three months, showed that the men had a marked increase in hair growth and hair follicles in the growth phase. The remedy was applied under the skin using a thin needle, but aside from redness from the needle stick itself, no side effects were detected.

The next step is to test what the effect is if they treat thin-haired men with a cream developed with their active remedy instead.

“We would like to investigate if we can improve the results with daily treatments and longer treatment periods. And find out what happens to the participants over time. Is the effect permanent or do they need to continue their treatment?”

The study is to start at the beginning of 2020.

Pontus Dunér, researcher at Lund University Diabetes Centre. Photo: Sara Liedholm
Photo: Sara Liedholm

Found in the pancreas

Their other important discoveries linked to diabetes were made a few years ago while they were working on ensuring that the hair loss remedy was safe for humans.

The first discovery came when they looked at where the remedy they injected into the animal ended up. Aside from in the skin around hair follicles, it also settled in the pancreas where the insulin-producing beta cells are located. They therefore tested the effect that the remedy had on beta cells in the laboratory. It turned out the cells treated with the remedy both increased in number and released more insulin!

“Everyone thought it was very exciting, we have to keep investigating!”

They continued to investigate what happened to cells that were exposed to high levels of glucose (as with type 2 diabetes) and that were treated with the company’s different peptides.

The result showed that cells that were not treated with the remedy were poorly and dysfunctional after three days, while the treated cells survived and even increased their ability to secrete insulin.

Delays the onset

The results have led to a change of course for Pontus Dunér and Follicum who are now working seriously in the area of diabetes. They are currently working together with Professor Åke Lernmark and an animal model that spontaneously develops type 1 diabetes at a certain age. In experiments, they have treated the test animals with their peptides with the aim of delaying – or preventing – the onset of the disease.

The results have been promising:

“We managed to delay the onset of the disease by protecting the beta cells for a certain period of time”, says Pontus Dunér. “Now we are working on optimising the treatment and looking at different doses.”

Treatment with Follicum’s peptides in animal experiments seems to protect the beta cells from both the immune system’s attack in type 1 diabetes and from the harmful effects of high blood sugars in type 2 diabetes while also improving insulin production. The hypothesis is that they also have the potential to protect against certain complications, although it is still too early to say.  

“In three to five years we will know if it also works on humans”, concludes Pontus Dunér.

Sara Liedholm

Facts/Pontus Dunér

Pontus Dunér and his daughter
Photo: Private
Does: Researcher in molecular biology at Lund University

Born: in Stockholm

Lives: in Dalby with his wife and two daughters, 7 and 11 years

Interest: active scout, enjoys spending time in the mountains and skiing.

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Lund University Diabetes Centre, CRC, SUS Malmö, Jan Waldenströms gata 35, House 91:12. SE-214 28 Malmö. Telephone: +46 40 39 10 00