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Balding men may get help from new pill

Balding men may soon be able to grow their hair back by taking a pill, the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. announced Sunday.

However, a full head of hair may have a price men are unwilling to pay. Side effects include decreased libido and difficulty achieving erection, researchers said.

Sixty-five percent of moderately balding men who took the drug Propecia daily for a year grew hair, compared with 37 percent of men who took a placebo, said Merck researcher Keith Kaufman, who presented the initial findings at the American Academy of Dermatology convention.

The researchers, who tattooed a 1-inch circle on the scalps of 1,550 men under age 45, found a 107-hair improvement among men taking Propecia, Kaufman said.

The drug, whose generic name is finasteride, suppresses the hormone that shrinks scalp hair follicles and reverses the balding process, Kaufman said.

"Finasteride is a unique product because it inhibits a key underlying process responsible for hair loss," he said.

The drug is on the market in a higher dosage under the name Proscar, a treatment for enlarged prostate glands. Merck applied in December for federal approval to market Propecia in 1-milligram pills. Approval processes normally take at least a year.

Propecia, named after alopecia, the medical term for baldness, may prove more effective than the lotion Rogaine, made by Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc., which has helped only a fraction of people tested in clinical studies, dermatologists said.

While scientists found that 65 percent of balding men grew hair back with the drug, Savin's panel of dermatologists concluded that only 48 percent showed hair growth after looking at before-and-after photos of the patients. Savin said the drug stabilized hair loss in test patients who did not show hair growth, another important finding.

Researchers don't yet know if patients would have to keep taking the pill forever to maintain hair growth. That may be a concern because of the drug's side effects.

The drug is likely to be limited to men, and possibly later, to women past-child bearing age, Savin said.