Men who are balding appear much more likely to suffer from severe cases of COVID-19 than those with a full head of hair, researchers found.
Researchers discovered that 79% of men hospitalized with COVID-19 had androgenetic alopecia, a common form of hair loss, compared to 31% to 53% of men of similar age, according to a EurekAlert published Thursday.
The hair loss condition is controlled by variations in the androgen receptor, or AR, gene, which affects how the body responds to androgens, or hormones such as testosterone. An enzyme involved in COVID-19 infection, TMPRSS2, is regulated by an androgen response element and also could be affected by the AR gene.
The study involved 65 men who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. The researchers looked at the length of the polyglutamine repeat (or CAG repeat) region in the AR gene, which is linked to male-pattern baldness, in the men.
They found that the men whose AR CAG repeat was shorter than 22 nucleotides, or DNA molecules, were much less likely to end up in intensive care with COVID-19 than those whose CAG count was 22 or higher.
“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,” said Andy Goren, chief medical officer of Applied Biology Inc. in Irvine, California.
“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,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Dr. Goren and his research team also plan to explore a new therapy for COVID-19 using a novel androgen receptor antagonist to regulate TMPRSS2 expression and possibly treat COVID-19 patients.
The full findings of the study were presented at the virtual European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Spring Symposium 2021, which was held Thursday and Friday.
Androgenetic alopecia affects an estimated 50 million men in the United States. It can start as early as a person’s teens, but risk increases with age, according to MedlinePlus. More than 50% of men over age 50 have some degree of hair loss.
The hair loss condition in men has been associated with several other medical conditions, including coronary heart disease, prostate cancer, disorders of insulin resistance such as diabetes and obesity, and high blood pressure.
The condition also affects about 30 million women in the U.S. Women often experience hair loss after menopause.