Using a new experimental drug, researchers at Johns Hopkins have successfully reversed baldness, hair whitening and skin inflammation caused by high-fat diets in mice. While the effects have yet to be proven in humans, it's hoped the research could lead to treatments to reverse baldness and speed wound healing.

The research focused on a type of fat found in skin and cell membranes called glycosphingolipids (GSLs). The prevalence of GSLs in the uppermost layer of the skin led the researchers to examine whether inhibiting the compound could alter skin pigmentation, color and health. A man-made molecule was subsequently developed, called D-PDMP, that could inhibit the activity of GSLs.

A mouse model engineered to have defects in the homeostasis of cholesterol and other fats was then tested on two different diets, with one group fed a standard mouse diet and the other fed a Western diet high in fat and cholesterol. The initial results were stark, and after just eight weeks the mice fed the Western diet displayed hair loss, hair whitening and even skin lesions.

"Our findings show that a Western diet causes hair loss, hair whitening and skin inflammation in mice, and we believe a similar process occurs in men who lose hair and experience hair whitening when they eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol," says Subroto Chatterjee, one of the Johns Hopkins researchers working on the project.

From this point the study then administered the mice with D-PDMP. Excitingly, the mice on the Western diet suffering the deleterious effects quickly displayed broad improvements across all symptoms. Hair began to regrow, hair color returned to normal, and general skin inflammation reduced.

A variety of mechanisms were examined, revealing exactly how the experimental drug was causing this dramatic reversal of diet-induced effects. Levels of white blood cells called neutrophils were seen to increase in mice eating the Western diet, and subsequently decrease after D-PDMP treatment. Neutrophils have been associated with skin inflammation and defects in wound healing.

Another interesting observation was that a Western diet seemed to reduce levels of protective compounds found in skin called ceramides. A reduction in ceramides is known to occur with natural aging, resulting in wrinkly, dry skin that is more prone to inflammation. Again, the D-PDMP treatment significantly returned the animal's ceramide levels back to normal in the experiments.

It's important to note that this research is still in very early stages and the scientists are clear in stating there is no evidence that D-PDMP is safe to administer to humans, or that these results could even be replicated in humans. What is perhaps most relevant from the research, is that it opens up entirely new avenues for investigating ways to battle hair loss and improve wound healing in humans. If modulating GSLs in superficial layers of human skin is found to result in similar effects then possible future topical medications may be developed that could speed up wound healing or regrow hair.

"Further research is needed, but our findings show promise for someday using the drug we developed for skin diseases such as psoriasis, and wounds resulting from diabetes or plastic surgery," adds Chatterjee.

The new study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.