LUGANO, Switzerland — There are plenty of risk factors which place people in greater danger from COVID-19. From old age, to obesity, to heart and respiratory issues, the list seems to grow all the time. Now, scientists say the gene which leads to male hair loss also makes it up to 2.5 times more likely they’ll end up in the hospital with severe coronavirus.
Researchers, reporting their findings to the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, find men that are genetically sensitive to the male sex hormone androgen have a significantly greater chance of developing a severe COVID infection. Applied Biology, Inc. scientists examined this connection after finding a disproportionate number of balding men in COVID intensive care units.
Variations in the androgen receptor (AR) gene lead to androgenetic alopecia, a common form of hair loss. This gene affects how sensitive the body is to hormones like testosterone.
Although researchers would expect to find between 31 and 53 percent of men in the hospital with COVID-19 to have androgenetic alopecia, the study discovered the actual number was a staggering 79 percent. Moreover, the team says an enzyme tied to COVID-19 infection (TMPRSS2) is also regulated by the body’s androgen response. Therefore, AR gene variations may affect this enzyme as well.
Unraveling the genetic puzzle of COVID-19
Researchers add the polyglutamine repeat (CAG repeat) region of the AR gene has a connection to both hormone sensitivity and hair loss. With this in mind, the team investigated if there are any links between the length of the CAG repeat regions in DNA and COVID severity.
Study authors examined 65 men with COVID-19 in the hospital, measuring the CAG repeat length in each of their AR genes. Results reveal men with a CAG repeat containing fewer than 22 nucleotides were far less likely to end up in the ICU for COVID. Those with more than 22 nucleotides in the hair loss gene had significantly greater odds of severe infection.
“Our data show that longer AR CAG scores are associated with more severe COVID-19 disease and indicate that AR CAG repeat length could be used as a biomarker to help identify male COVID-19 patients most at risk for ICU admissions,” says Dr. Andy Goren, Chief Medical Officer at Applied Biology, in a media release.
“The identification of a biomarker connected with the androgen receptor is another piece of evidence highlighting the important role of androgens in COVID-19 disease severity.”
Can studying hair loss lead to a COVID treatment?
Dr. Goran’s team also explored a new therapy for COVID-19 which uses a novel androgen receptor antagonist to target the TMPRSS2 enzyme. By regulating how that enzyme expresses itself in patients, researchers hope to find a treatment option for coronavirus infections.
“This research demonstrates the scientific value of dermatology by offering key insights into the role of genetics and its link to COVID disease,” says Prof. Lidia Rudnicka, EADV Board Member and Professor at the Medical University of Warsaw.
Researchers presented their findings at EADV’s 2021 Spring Symposium.