The Glasgow research clinic has been running for over a year now and we are pleased to say that we have had over 60 volunteers! Each volunteer kindly donated blood and/or skin and/or stool and filled in questionnaires about their alopecia, and about how alopecia has affected their quality of life. Some of these samples were used for my PhD project, and the rest were stored in the University’s tissue biobank.

Most of my project, so far, has involved analysing blood from people with alopecia to identify changes in specific cells and molecules. We compare these samples with samples from people without alopecia so that we know the changes we find are associated with hair loss. We know from other scientists that specific cells, T cells, of the immune system become activated to attack the hair follicles during alopecia, but we don’t really understand what factors sustain this response and how these cells continually cause hair loss. My PhD project aims to identify what factors promote the activity of these cells and to find any other cells that may be important.

We have found that people with alopecia have different levels of specific T cells, called Th17 cells. They also have altered levels of specific proteins in the blood, called cytokines. These cytokines tell us about the type of immune cells that are switched on during alopecia. We are now using the skin samples to understand the role of these cytokines and cells in driving alopecia.

In addition, we are also exploring whether there is a link between the inflammation that causes hair loss, and psychological symptoms that some people with alopecia experience. There is evidence, from other autoimmune diseases, describing the link between cytokines in the blood and altered systems in the brain. Some of the cytokines that we have found in the blood samples from people with alopecia have been linked with depression in other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. This information from the blood doesn’t directly tell us that inflammation causing hair loss can cause depressive symptoms, but based on the evidence from other diseases we think that it may contribute.

I mentioned above that we also store some samples in the University’s biobank to create a resource for other researchers who are interested in studying alopecia. Applications to access the samples are assessed by a research committee who decides whether the research proposal is realistic. These samples are scientifically valuable, and are now available at minimal cost to other alopecia researchers.

The progress we have made so far would not have been possible without the help of all the people with alopecia who have volunteered to donate samples and take part in this study- thank you! We would also like to thank Alopecia UK for their funding which supports the research clinic and Medical Research Scotland and AstraZeneca who fund my PhD. We are still actively recruiting volunteers to the clinic, so if you live near Glasgow and are interested in this study you can register your interest by contacting the research nurse, Fiona Moffat. Fiona’s email is on this patient information sheet.