Scientists conducting studies that investigate how certain cancer tumors form have made an accidental discovery that may potentially lead to the development of a cure for balding and graying hair.
Study researcher Lu Le, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and colleagues unexpectedly discovered what is responsible for turning hair gray and making it fall out or stop growing.
The researchers found that a protein known as KROX20, which is commonly linked to nerve development, is turned on in skin cells that later turn into the hair shaft.
These hair progenitor cells then produce stem cell factor or SCF, a protein that plays an important role in hair pigmentation.
In their experiments, the researchers found that when they delete the SCF gene in the hair progenitor cells in mice, the animals' hair turn white. When they delete the cells that produce KROX20, no hair grows and the animals become bald.
"We identified that the transcription factor KROX20 marks a cell lineage differentiating toward the hair shaft and that SCF in these hair shaft progenitor cells acts as a critical intrinsic rheostat of hair pigmentation by managing mature melanocyte in the upper HF matrix," the researchers wrote in their study, which was published in Genes & Development.
Scientists have long known that stem cells in the bulge area of hair follicles play a part in the production of hair and the SCF is crucial for pigmented cells, but there are a few things that they did not know about in detail.
The study found that when cells containing working KROX20 and SCF are present, they move up from the bulb, interact with the melanocyte cells responsible for pigmentation, and then become pigmented hairs.
Without SCF, the hair of the lab animals became gray and white with age. Without cells that produce KROX20, no hair grew.
May Pave Way For Treatments That Can Address Baldness And Graying Hair Problems
Further studies may shed light if the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop to work properly when people get older, which then leads to the graying and thinning of hair typically seen in older people.
Earlier research has already attributed genetics as one of the important factors that can determine a person's likelihood to suffer from baldness and graying hair. Other factors may be in play as well. One study has found that hairstyle choice may also influence risks for baldness.
Researchers hope that the research could eventually pave the way for the development of topical compounds that may address baldness and graying hair.
People who want to cover their gray hair do so by dyeing it. No treatment is yet available to reverse the graying of the hair. Although there are medications currently available to treat baldness or hair loss, research suggests that these treatments come with unwanted side effects.
"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," Le said.