While it is generally known what causes apolpecia – an auto immune disease in which the lymphocytes in the immune system overwork and reject the hair as foreign – what triggers it and how to stop it progressing is still unknown.
While researching a book on the subject (to be published by Thorsons later this year) Steel has become convinced that there is a connection with the contraceptive pill. It is more widely suggested that stress may be a factor, and while Steel thinks this ‘an old-fashioned view’ she says the type of woman who writes to her most is ‘in her late twenties to early thirties, working like mad in a career and trying to keep a family going’. Fenton feels there is no typical sufferer, but says: ‘People have discovered that stress can have an effect on the immune system.
A very high percentage of alopecia patients have had some sort of severe shock or experienced an extremely stressful situation, but there is a significant number who have the disease and do not have any form of stress.’
The drug Minoxodil has recently been hailed as a treatment for hair loss. It is present in Scalp Med, the lotion approved last month by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, which said it has been shown to restore hair in a significant number of cases. Minoxodil is already known and approved as a treatment for high blood pressure; its additional property was noticed by patients taking it in tablet form for its original purpose.
At the moment Scalp Med, developed by the Upjohn pharmaceutical company, is only available privately and Upjohn says it is likely to work only on those with mild or recent baldness. The safety committee considered it to have no noticeable effect whatsoever on women. But Steel believes that it was an experimental formulation of Minoxodil, discovered by trial and error by her dermatologist, which triggered her regrowth, and she feels that the drug could give hope to thousands.
She also has high hopes of another drug to help with severe cases. ‘Several Hairline members throughout the country are now taking part in trials of diphencyprone, an organic phenol derivative. One woman’s hair has grown back for the first time in 54 years.’