Scientific Advance Brings New Hope

Angela Christiano is a researcher on the front lines of hair promotion and preservation.

My mom and her mother had hair loss from a young age. I have a cousin also who lost all of her hair. Ironically, hair is a big part of my family’s life. My grandfather was a barber in Italy and then later in New Jersey. And my mother was a hairdresser before retiring. I’m the first person in my family to go to college and graduate school: Rutgers. My mother now says, “You’re just another hair person — you just do it differently.”

Dr. Christiano was facing divorce and a career crossroads. A personal crisis revealed the direction her experiments would take…

In 1995, a time of big transitions in my life. After doing highly successful postdoctoral research on genetic blistering skin diseases at Jefferson Medical College, I’d arrived here at Columbia to start my own laboratory. I had just turned 30. I was getting a divorce. When you start your first lab, a researcher is expected to find something different from their postdoc work. For my first six months here, I sat thinking, “What am I going to do when I grow up?”

In the midst of all this, I went to a beauty parlor and the stylist said: “What’s happened here? You have a big patch of hair missing from the back of your head.” I ignored that. But the next day at the lab, I asked a colleague to take a look. She let out a bloodcurdling scream: “You have a huge bald spot!”

Dr. Christiano was well qualified to tackle the affliction of hair loss. Hair and skin are part of the integumentary system, and skin disease was the focus of her previous research…

None of this history, however, led Christiano to her studies. That happened with remarkable serendipity. After she earned her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1991, she began an emotionally wrenching postdoctoral fellowship: hunting down the genetic basis of epidermolysis bullosa, a childhood disease that causes disfiguring and even fatal blisters. Every few months, Christiano collected blood samples from children at Rockefeller University Hospital in New York City to analyze their DNA. “These kids are covered from head to foot with blisters that are like third-degree burns. They have to be bandaged constantly. And to take those bandages off, you have to soak the children in warm water because if you just took the gauze off, you would take their skin off.”

Christiano felt powerless because scientists knew so little about the disease. But over the next five years she isolated one gene, then another, and another, until more than 50 mutations on several genes associated with epidermolysis bullosa had been nailed. Not only did her research lay the groundwork for effective genetic counseling, but she also developed the first prenatal test for the disease. She was 30.

Read the rest here at Discover Magazine. Dr. Christiano sounds like a really nice person. And I have to like a woman who knows her way around a hair salon and directs her own research lab.

Her discoveries will do more than treat hair loss, but if she gets rich doing that it will be well-deserved.

GETTING SERIOUS: Mary Beth Williams at Salon writes about surviving cancer and how the hair loss really is a big deal. Best wishes, Mary Beth, may you live to be 100 and have good hair to the end.


2 thoughts on “Scientific Advance Brings New Hope

  1. Now if she could just help me tame my frizzies!

    I liked this story a lot, too. Seriously, losing hair in clumps has got to be freaky. But apart from the psychological impact, Christiano is finding correspondences with diseases that pose graver threats to health (RA, Type 1 diabetes). Just goes to show the importance of not framing a research problem too narrowly.

  2. Exactly. She sounds so interesting– a Jersey Girl and research scientist. And she has not forgotten her roots, so to speak.
    I think there is really a nice recognition that quality of life is interwoven from things large and small.

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