Scientists have ‘stumbled’ across the cells that cause hair to go grey and fall out, causing balding, while studying how cancer tumours develop.
The team from Southwestern Medical Centre, in Texas, were able to pinpoint the skin cells that give rise to human hair follicles, but could also provide the answer to curing male-pattern hair loss.
Dr. Lu Le, Associate Professor of Dermatology, said: “Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumours form, we ended up learning why hair turns grey and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair.”
The study shed light on a protein called KROX20 – which is more commonly associated with nerve development – but is also responsible for ‘switching on’ skin cells that become the hair shaft.
These skin cells, or hair precursors as they are known, are then prompted by KROX20 to produce a protein called a stem cell factor (SCF) and pigment the hair, so that it is not grey.
When this stem cell factor gene was deleted for the genome, the animal’s hair returned to being white (or colourless). Then when the KROX20 cells were deleted all together, no hair grew at all.
Scientists already knew that the stem cell factor contained a bulge area of hair follicles involved in making hair, but what they did not know was what happened after those stem cells moved down to the base of the follicle.
“With this knowledge we hope in the future to create a topical compound or to safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems,” said Le.
Le and his team were meant to be studying a rare genetic disorder, Neurofibromatosis, which causes tumours to grow on nerves.
They are now trying to work out if the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop working properly as people age.