“There is only one cure for gray hair... It is called the guillotine,” PG Wodehouse once wrote. But let’s not be so pessimistic, science might have found another way.
Scientists have identified the cells that allow our hair to grow, providing further insight into the mechanisms that cause hair to turn gray and bald. The researchers say this could be used to find treatments for balding and graying hair in the near future. The findings are published in the journal Genes & Development.
The study explored stem cells deep in the hair follicles known as hair progenitor cells, along with two proteins called KROX20 and stem cell factor (SCF). They found that KROX20 “turned on" in skin cells that became the hair shaft. These hair progenitor cells then produced SCF, which is essential for hair pigmentation. If cells with both KROX20 and SCF are present, they move up from the follicle, interact with pigment-producing melanocyte cells, and grow into pigmented hairs.
However, when the team “deleted” the KROX20-producing cells in mice, they didn’t grow any hair and became bald. When they deleted the SCF gene in the hair progenitor cells in mice, their hair turned white.
This discovery was stumbled upon by chance, as KROX20 is typically associated with nerve development. The researchers found the cells while studying a disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1, a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on nerves.
“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," lead researcher Dr Lu Le, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said in a statement. "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."
Dr Le added that the next step is to find out how both the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop working properly as people age, as well as their role in male pattern baldness. In the meantime, it’s time to start embracing that gray streak or rocking the bald look.