A team of scientists in Texas, USA, have identified the mechanisms that promote gray hair and baldness. Researchers are hopeful the new discovery could pave the way to new treatments for the conditions.
Scientists from the University of Texas Southewestern Medical Center made the discovery when they accidentally stumbled upon it while studying a rare genetic disease that causes tumours to grow on nerves.
“When we saw the mice that we were expecting to form a tumour turned gray, we were really excited!” says co-author Dr. Lu Le, an associate professor of dermatology at the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UT Dallas.
Dr. Le and colleagues set out to investigate a rare genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), whereby tumours grow on nerves.
Their aim was to pinpoint the mechanisms behind tumour growth in NF1.
According to a 2012 study, around 6% to 23% of adults around the world can expect to have at least 50% gray hair at the age of 50 years.
While many consider gray hair and baldness as a normal part of ageing, for some though, they are very difficult to deal with. Researchers believe their findings could lead to new treatments for gray hair and baldness.
Dr. Le and his team note that previous studies had already determined that hair follicles contain stem cells that play a part in hair production, and that a protein known as stem cell factor (SCF) is involved in giving hair its color.
In the new study, the researchers found that a protein called KROX20, more commonly linked with nerve development, switches on in skin cells that become the hair shaft.
These hair cells then produce another protein called stem cell factor (SCF). In mouse model study, these two proteins turned out to be crucial for baldness and gray hair.
When the scientists removed the SCF gene in mice, the rodents’ hair turned white; when they deleted the cells that produce KROX20, hair growth in mice stopped and eventually they went bald.
The team concludes that their findings show that flaw in KROX20 and SCF play a remarkable role in baldness and gray hair, though studies in humans are required to confirm their results.
Yet, Dr. Le and colleagues believe their findings show promise for the development of new therapies for baldness and hair graying.
They also say the findings could one day provide answers to why we age in general as hair graying and baldness are among the first signs of ageing.
“Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumors form, we ended up learning why hair turns gray and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair.
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,” conclude the authors.
The findings were recently published in the journal Genes and Development.