Good news for bald people

A team of scientists have discovered a chemical that plays a key role in controlling cell division and cell death in hair follicles.

This discovery could not only cure baldness, but ultimately speed up wound healing, since follicles are the source of stem cells.

Most cells in the human body have a specific form and function, determined during embryonic development, that does not change. For example, a blood cell cannot become a nerve cell or vice versa. On the contrary, stem cells can transform into other types of cells, and their adaptability makes them useful for repairing damaged tissues or organs.

“In science fiction, when characters heal quickly from injuries, the idea is that stem cells allow that,” said the University of California, Riverside mathematical biologist and study co-author Qichuan Wang.

“In real life, our new research brings us closer to understanding stem cell behavior so we can control it and promote wound healing,” Wang added in a recently published paper in the Biophysical Journal.

The liver and stomach regenerate in response to injury. However, Wang’s team studied the hair follicle because it is the only human organ that regenerates spontaneously and periodically, even without injury.

Scientists have identified how a type of protein called TGF-beta controls the process by which cells in hair follicles, including stem cells, divide to form new cells or regulate cell death, ultimately leading to the death of entire hair follicles.

“TGF-beta plays two opposite roles,” explains Wang. “It helps activate some of the hair follicle cells to create new life, and later helps regulate programmed cell death.”

As with many chemicals, the difference lies in the amount. And if a cell produces a certain amount of TGF-beta, it activates cell division. Many of them cause programmed cell death.

Nobody knows exactly why the bulbs kill themselves, but some hypotheses suggest it’s an inherited trait from animals shedding their fur to survive the high summer temperatures or trying to disguise themselves.

“Even when a hair follicle kills itself, it never kills its supply of stem cells. When the remaining stem cells receive the signal to regenerate, they divide, create a new cell, and develop into a new follicle,” Wang said.

If scientists can more accurately determine how TGF-beta activates cell division and how the chemical interacts with other important genes, it may be possible to activate follicle stem cells and stimulate hair growth.

Since the skin of many animals and humans is covered with hair, optimal wound healing requires the regeneration of hair follicles. And the ability to more precisely control TGF-beta levels could one day cure the hair loss that plagues millions of people around the world.