Hair-loss treatments generate over $3.5 billion annually – impressive, considering none of them are 100 percent effective. A new discovery, though, might hold the key to treating baldness for good – and it was inside the hair follicles themselves all along.
“Potentially our work could offer something to help people suffering from a variety of problems,” said mathematical biologist Qixuan Wang in a statement. She’s co-author of a study, published last month in the Biophysical Journal, which has linked a single protein to the growth – and death – of hair follicles.
It’s called TGF-beta, and it controls how cells in hair follicles divide and form new cells. It’s a delicate balancing act: too much of the protein, and the whole follicle dies.
“TGF-beta has two opposite roles,” explained Wang. “It helps activate some hair follicle cells to produce new life, and later, it helps orchestrate apoptosis, the process of cell death.”
However, “even when a hair follicle kills itself, it never kills its stem cell reservoir,” she said. “When the surviving stem cells receive the signal to regenerate, they divide, make new cell[s] and develop into a new follicle.”
That’s the key to the discovery: stem cells. These little guys are like tiny chameleons, or unpaid interns, ready to take on just about any role required of them – which is why there’s so much interest in their potential for disease and injury treatments.
“Stem cells are unspecialized cells of the human body,” explains a 2019 review article. “They are able to differentiate into any cell of an organism and have the ability of self-renewal […] They can be an unlimited source, either for replacing lost or diseased tissues.”
“Stem cell therapy is becoming a magnificent game changer for medicine,” the article adds. “The influence of stem cells in regenerative medicine and transplantology is immense.”
Stem cells can be found throughout the body, ready to be deployed when something needs fixing – but the ones in our hair follicles are particularly useful for researchers. That’s because they’re the only organ in humans that constantly regenerate, without needing to be triggered by some injury or illness.
Instead, they depend on TGF-beta – and if researchers can figure out how to control levels of this protein, it might hold the key to curing baldness, the team says. Even better: because of the way the mammal bodies regenerate after injuries, it may be the first step towards perfect wound healing.
“In science fiction when characters heal quickly from injuries, the idea is that stem cells allowed it,” Wang explained.
“In real life, our new research gets us closer to understanding stem cell behavior, so that we can control it and promote wound healing.”