Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow Is a Drag, but with Minoxidil Papa's Got a Brand-New Shag

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

One night last summer Joseph Foriest had a dream "that somewhere they found a cure for baldness." That evening when Foriest turned on the TV, he found that a study of a possible baldness medication was already under way just eight miles away, at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital. There, under the direction of Dr. Henry Roenigk Jr., balding desperadoes were massaging their scalps with minoxidil, a high-blood-pressure medication, to see if they could cultivate a new crop of hair. With nothing to lose but his receding hairline, Foriest, 37, who heads a promotional-products firm, enrolled as a test subject. The "cure" worked. "The recession has stopped, and growth is coming into the area where it was completely bald," says Foriest happily, gently patting his pate.

Foriest is one of about 3,000 volunteers participating in hair-raising studies at Northwestern Memorial and some 30 other U.S. medical centers. Researchers are seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of minoxidil as a baldness remedy and to ascertain what, if any, side effects it has. Sponsored by Upjohn—the drug company that manufactures minoxidil—and by independent investigators, these studies will determine whether minoxidil, approved in 1979 as an antihypertensive drug, gets FDA approval as a baldness banisher. Roenigk, 50, chairman of Northwestern's dermatology department, notes that the FDA is concerned because minoxidil is a very potent drug when used internally. "They don't want it being absorbed into the system through the skin and causing blood pressures to drop and people to faint all over the place," he explains.

To check for side effects, scientists and doctors are monitoring volunteers, and photographs are taken to record hair growth. So far Roenigk can support the drug's safeness and limited efficacy. In his study 40 percent of the 50 people who applied minoxidil solution two or three times a day grew at least some hair. To date side effects have been minimal. "We had one patient who had an allergic reaction to it and broke out in a rash, but most have no symptoms whatsoever," Roenigk says. "I would say that they are tolerating minoxidil extremely well."

Dr. Richard De Villez, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, agrees. He says that 30 percent of the 56 people in his Upjohn study grew "cosmetically acceptable hair." Nor has he heard of any adverse effects from what he says is widespread unofficial use of the drug.

Minoxidil as a baldness corrective was suggested when patients using it for hypertension "began to look like werewolves," says Roenigk. "As a person ages, blood vessels constrict and hormones that control hair growth are not adequately released locally," he theorizes. "Minoxidil dilates blood vessels and may release those hormones that stimulate hair follicles."

Still doctors are cautious. Dr. Robert Rietschel, acting chairman of the department of dermatology at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine, has been monitoring 150 minoxidil patients. "One-fifth of these people are developing hair you can cut and comb," he reports. But he notes that about one-third of those who volunteered for the study, including seven of nine women, dropped out owing to discouraging results. And, he warns, use it only under a physician's care. "It is not just a hair tonic."

The father of four, Dr. Roenigk, like his dad a graduate of Northwestern's medical school, is married to Kathie, a nurse practitioner. He thinks that the outlook for the hairlorn is bright. "Minoxidil is probably just the first step," he says. "I think that next, this drug will be modified to make it more potent locally without side effects. Before, people said, 'Oh, there is nothing you can do for male-pattern baldness—either accept it or get a hair transplant or a toupee.' Now if a person doesn't want a toupee and is afraid of having surgery, minoxidil offers another possibility."

But even with the drug, it's use it or lose it. Two patients who started and then stopped treatment with minoxidil, says De Villez, suffered "dramatic" hair loss, leaving them, well, stranded—as bald as when they began.

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