What is a hair research conference like?

I attended my first research conference on behalf of Alopecia UK last week.  Since joining AUK, getting to grips with the language of academia, and hair science has been the steepest learning curve for me, and I have invested quite a lot of energy into it.  So, with some nervousness I joined the great and the good of hair research at the First Barcelona Hair Meeting, setting up an awareness stand and attending as a delegate in the educational meetings where researchers showcase their work. 

The conference was attended by scientists looking at the microbiology of hair, the psychology of hair loss, medical treatments, surgical procedures, pathology, and more.  Attending the conferences was a mixture of pure scientists working in labs (think test tubes and microscopes), dermatologists, trichologists, immunologists, and hair restoration surgeons. 

The exhibition area included laboratories, laser companies, trichological scopes, and a hair system supplier.  And there was a corridor with boards with A1-size posters lining the walls; researchers submit these posters to outline their study with interesting commentary about what they learned along the way. These included case studies, atypical presentations of alopecia, the use of novel therapies, and more.  My attention was taken toward two posters asking if vaccines cause alopecia. They both concluded that a vaccine may be a potential trigger of autoimmune diseases in genetically predisposed patients, but that more research needs to be done to understand the link between the vaccines and alopecia.

It was a hair-science smorgasbord!

(Pic: L-R, Dr Julie Clayton (Alopecia UK's Research & Liaison Manager), Dr Matthew Harries, Dr Sharon Wong, Dr Anita Takwale, Sue Schilling (Alopecia UK CEO) and Dr Kapil Bhargava)

I had 3 primary goals for my time at conference...

Firstly, to ensure that the researchers were listening to patients, in clinical practice that means I was representing the patient voice.  As Alopecia UK was the only patient group in attendance, and as the only person there with observable alopecia, I felt listened to and understood. During the sessions several speakers emphasised the importance of talking to patients about all their options, and that dermatologists should not force their pre-ideas about what a good outcome would be. In other words, the patient decides what is good not the clinician. 

It was clear to me that the speakers understood the psychological impact of living with alopecia and the importance of eyebrows and eyelashes.  One speaker even showed us the eyebrow transfers that he recommends for patients while they explore treatments. I didn’t say that the Alopecia UK community is way ahead on that one, but I did have the opportunity to stand up and remind everybody to also look at nasal and body hair as this serves a function too.

Secondly, to meet the researchers who support the charity by volunteering their expertise in our Research Committee or in service of our Charter for Best Practice for NHS Wig Provision and those who are prominent in their field or receive funding from us.  I had some meaningful conversations, talking about the importance of scientists developing ideas in corridors at conferences, gaining an invite for a visit to a hair research laboratory, signing up two speakers for our Big Weekend event in March, using our connections to introduce organisations to one another and meeting prominent clinicians in both the NHS and private sectors.

My third goal was to learn, so that I can help Alopecia UK do even more to ensure that researchers remain interested in solving our alopecia conundrums.  Importantly, the dermatologists involved in research that I spoke to knew about Alopecia UK, and if they were in the UK had referred their patients to us or even applied for our research funding grants.  

The First Barcelona Hair Meeting was a gathering of lots of super smart people who are focused on solving the mysteries around multiple types of alopecia.  What causes it, what treats it, and how to prevent it.

I came away full of hope for more breakthroughs and with gratitude for the dedication of the people I met.

(Pic: Sue Schilling and Professor Andrew Messenger)