Dermatologist strives to stimulate interest in hair, related disorders

June 1, 2011

Vera H. Price, M.D., encourages those she mentors to pursue detours and other opportunities whenever they arise - especially when those opportunities are with people who are respected in their fields. Some turns in the road might not seem like perfect fits, but they usually can broaden your horizons. Dr. Price is a renowned hair expert in dermatology because of an opportunity she did not anticipate and was not even certain that she wanted.

Key Points

Some turns in the road might not seem like perfect fits, but they usually can broaden your horizons. They might even change your life, she says.

Dr. Price is a renowned hair expert in dermatology because of an opportunity she did not anticipate and was not even certain that she wanted.

"I couldn't practice dermatology until I passed my California state exams, and that was a few months away," she says.

The department head asked her if she liked math and physics (which she did) and offered to send her to study human hair with the wool chemists in the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Regional Research Laboratory in Berkeley. It was not what Dr. Price expected, but she accepted it, becoming a research dermatologist in the USDA's Wool and Mohair Laboratory.

The yearlong appointment with the wool chemists became a three-year research experience. Dr. Price says that sheep wool is an important commodity worldwide, and she notes that the study of wool is an advanced science.

"These chemists have figured how to keep wool from shrinking, from yellowing, and have studied protein structure and its relation to wool properties," Dr. Price says.

During her time at the wool lab, Dr. Price was introduced to the scientific method, and she studied the structure and biochemistry of human hair alongside top physical chemists, optical and electron microscopists and crystallographers.

She and her husband did not return to Canada. After three years at the wool lab, she told the UCSF dermatology department that she wanted to return to full-time clinical dermatology and start a family.

"After supporting my study of hair, the department then asked me to give all the lectures on hair. Although not planned, this is how my expertise and subspecialty of hair and hair biology gradually evolved," says Dr. Price, who then became director of the UCSF Hair and Nail Clinic and practiced dermatology at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Francisco.

After about 20 years with Kaiser, she was invited to join the UCSF faculty full-time and become director of the UCSF Hair Research Center.

"I continued to practice general dermatology, but more and more patients with hair problems were being referred to me. And I was privileged to learn a great deal about hair and am now considered somewhat knowledgeable about this field," she says.

Ardent supporter

"Knowledgeable" may be an understatement. Dr. Price, now a professor in the UCSF's department of dermatology, co-founded two nonprofit foundations dealing with two challenging hair disorders: the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF) in 1981 and the Cicatricial Alopecia Research Foundation (CARF) in 2004. She also is a founding member and past-president of the North American Hair Research Society, formed in 1990 as a forum for those interested in hair.

"Both NAAF and CARF have stimulated much interest in their respective hair disorders and have funded important research. They offer seed grants for promising research and promising researchers. This research can lead to major funding from the National Institutes of Health," she says.

Dr. Price has devoted thousands of hours to ensuring the progress and success of both of these organizations. She is an ardent advocate of patient support groups and is keenly aware of the major role they play in the lives of many patients. She says that unless she is out of town, she always attends the organizations' annual patient conferences and local Bay Area support groups.