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The University of Texas Southwestern Credited with Blockbuster Hair Loss Discovery

Researchers in Dallas Accidentally Discover the Cell that Causes Hair Growth

According to a new study from researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, we may now know which cells in your scalp are directly responsible for hair loss and gray hair. The findings were published in the journal Genes & Development, describing how scientists stumbled upon the cells while studying the mechanisms behind a disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), a genetic condition whereby tumors grow on nerves.

In the article, “Identification of hair shaft progenitors that create a niche for hair pigmentation,” Dr. Lu Le, Associate Professor of Dermatology with the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern, along with co-authors Chung-Ping Liao, Reid Booker and Sean Morrison, describe the discovery. To make it as simple as possible, a protein called KROX20, more commonly associated with nerve development activates skin cells that turn into the hair shaft. Then those hair precursor, or progenitor, cells produce another protein called stem cell factor (SCF) that is needed for hair pigmentation.

To prove their theory, the researchers worked backwards. Working with mice, they deleted the SCF gene responsible for the pigmentation protein, which caused the hair turned white. They then deleted the KROX20-producing cells, which caused baldness in the mice.

The findings could provide answers about why we age in general as hair graying and hair loss are among the first signs of aging, and some believe it could one day help identify possible treatments for balding.

In a news release announcing the findings, Dr. Le said:

“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.”

It was not a mystery that stem cells contained in a bulge area of hair follicles are involved in making hair and that SCF is important for pigmented cells. However, Dr. Le explained there were three parts to their discovery:

  • What happens after those stem cells move down to the bulb of hair follicles;
  • Which cells in the hair follicles produce SCF; and
  • Cells involved in hair shaft creation make the KROX20 protein.

Here at Arocha Hair Restoration we are especially interested in the fact that research determined 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. If this can be duplicated in future research, it could open the door to new therapies for people experiencing hair loss.

A grant from the National Cancer Institute, Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) supported the research along with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Dermatology Foundation, the Children’s Tumor Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

The researchers are now planning additional studies on humans to examine what if any role the pigmentation and baldness genes play as people get older. Specifically, they will work toward determining if the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop working properly as people age.

Finally, we want to tip our cap to UT Southwestern Medical Center, which is located within a few miles of the Arocha Hair Restoration office in Dallas. UT Southwestern is a premier academic medical center and its faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, so it is no surprise that they are contributing to our understanding of hair loss at the cellular level.

We will keep the hair restoration community updated as more information is disclosed.