Androgens stimulate hair growth in many areas, e.g. the beard; they also induce regression and balding on the scalp with increasing age in genetically disposed individuals. The cause(s) of this biological conundrum is unknown but age-related; androgen-potentiated changes also occur in the prostate. The mesenchymederived dermal papilla situated at the base of the hair follicle is thought to play an important role in regulating the growth and development of the follicular epithelium. Since androgens probably act on the hair follicle via the dermal papilla, cultures of dermal papilla cells from human hair follicles with differing responses to androgens in vivo have been established and their ability to bind androgens assessed. Receptor binding was assayed by saturation analysis (0·05–10 nmol/l) using the synthetic non-metabolizable androgen, [3H]mibolerone. Shionogi 115 cells were also assayed as a positive control.
Specific high-affinity low-capacity androgen receptors were identified in 12 dermal papilla primary cell lines with similar characteristics to established androgen receptors. Cells from androgen-sensitive follicles (beard, scrotum and pubis) contained higher levels of androgen receptors than those derived from relatively androgeninsensitive non-balding scalp follicles whether the receptor content was calculated in relation to cell number, protein or DNA content of the cells. These results support the hypothesis that androgens act on hair follicles via the dermal papilla in vivo and demonstrate that dermal papilla cells exhibit an altered phenotype in culture which depends on the body site from which they were derived. Cultured human dermal papilla cells should prove a useful model system for studies of the mechanism of androgen action, and further investigations may elucidate the paradox of why bald men can grow beards.