Proving once again that medical discoveries are frequently made by accident, doctors in the US say they have identified the exact cells that lead to the creation of hair… while they were trying to understand a rare form of cancer. The findings may one day lead to new treatments for genetic hair loss
Leading a team of university researchers at the Southwestern Medical Centre in Texas, Dr Lu Le, an Associate Professor of Dermatology, was investigating a disorder called Neurofibromatosis Type 1 when he and his team made its discovery. “Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumours form,” he says, “we ended up learning why hair turns grey and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair.”
The team now hopes that its findings will lead to the creation of a topical compound (‘topical’ meaning that it is applied directly to the scalp, as is the case with the clinically-proven hair loss treatment
drug minoxidil) that will safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles.
Rare genetic disease paved the way
It was while looking for clues about Neurofibromatosis Type 1, a rare genetic disease of the nerves, that Dr Le’s team discovered that a protein called KROX20 turns on in skin cells that become the hair shaft. KROX20 is more commonly associated with nerve development.
These hair precursor, or ‘progenitor’ cells then produce a protein called stem cell factor (SCF) that the research team found is essential for hair pigmentation.
The team writes: “Scientists already knew that stem cells
contained in a bulge area of hair follicles are involved in making hair and that SCF is important for pigmented cells. What they did not know in detail is what happens after those stem cells move down to the base, or bulb, of hair follicles and which cells in the hair follicles produce SCF or that cells involved in hair shaft creation make the KROX20 protein.”
Doctors discovered that if cells with functioning KROX20 and SCF are present, they move up from the bulb, interact with pigment-producing melanocyte cells, and grow into pigmented hairs. But if there is no SCF, the hair in mouse models turned white. Importantly, without KROX20-producing cells, no hair grew at all.
The team’s next goal, it says, is to try and ascertain if the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop working as people age.
Hair loss treatment developments
These are exciting times for anyone involved in hair loss treatment not least because a wide range of hair loss conditions
can already be effectively treated by specialists. These include the most common forms of thinning - Male Pattern Baldness
and, the women's equivalent, Female Pattern Hair Loss
In common with the above findings, both of the only clinically-proven hereditary hair loss treatments, finasteride 1mg and high strength minoxidil
, were discovered to treat androgenetic alopecia by accident.
Finasteride was found to inhibit DHT
- the enzyme which causes genetic hair thinning in those affected by MPB - as a side effect when used in its original capacity as a Benign Prostate Hyperplasia medication. When used to treat BPH the drug is prescribed in 5mg doses, however, in 1997 a much smaller 1mg-per-day dose was licensed specifically as a treatment for male pattern baldness.
Minoxidil, a vasodilator which is applied directly to the scalp and used to stimulate hair growth in both men and women, was previously only used in tablet form to treat high blood pressure. When it was discovered to cause patients to experience unusual hair growth
, it was developed accordingly as a hair loss solution.
Alongside these existing approaches, new developments also often arising from serendipitous findings are paving the way for possible new treatment options in the future. Some of the most promising, involving drugs known as JAK inhibitors
which have shown promise in reversing baldness from severe Alopecia Areata
, have a chance of making it to market within two or three years and may be further developed into genetic hair loss treatment products in the future.
For anyone with hair loss right now there is no reason to adopt a "wait and see" approach, however. Science is already significantly more advanced in this area than many people realise, as Belgravia's Success Stories
, featuring a vast array of clients photographed before and after starting their recommended treatment courses, demonstrates.