Hair-Raising Tale

Scientists have discovered that activating a gene can trigger hair growth.
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This must be music to the ears of the millions of men and women who fret day in and day out about hair loss. The findings of a team of researchers from Sweden’s Umeå University that appeared recently in the journal PLoS Genetics offers a strand of hope for balding people in the not-so-distant future. The team found that activating a gene called Lhx2 can lead to increased hair growth.

“I think that our study can have practical implications in the future since we know a way of inducing hair growth,” Leif Carlsson, the Umeå molecular medicine scientist who led the study,  .

Hair is formed in hair follicles — complex mini organs in the skin that specialise in the task of hair formation. The follicles normally form when the child is in the mother’s womb. To ensure the continuous generation of hair, each hair follicle goes through three cyclical phases: recession, rest and growth. The length of the growth phase determines the length of the hair. For instance, the growth phase for scalp hair lasts for a number of years, while that for eyebrows lasts for only a few months.

Hair formation ceases after the growth phase. This is the recession phase when the rate of growth of hair reduces, finally entering a period of rest. After the rest period, a new growth period begins and the old hair is ejected from the body and lost. The reason for this complex system has still not been understood, but it has also been seen that hair growth adjusts itself to seasons.

In the present study, Carlsson’s team found that protein expressed by the gene Lhx2 plays an important role in regulating hair formation. The Lhx2 gene is active only during the growth phase and is turned off during the rest period. The studies, conducted on mice, showed that when the Lhx2 gene was switched off, the hair follicles could not produce hair. They also demonstrated that once the gene was switched on, the growth phase was activated and this, in turn, triggered the formation of hair.

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Another significant, and perhaps more useful, finding from the studies was that the expression of the Lhx2 gene can be manipulated even after birth, and that it is sufficient to activate the growth phase and stimulate hair growth.

To be sure, this is not the first time that scientists have busted the myth that hair follicles can be formed only during the development of an embryo. Scientists led by dermatologist George Cotsarelis, at the Pennsylvania University School of Medicine in the US, had put to rest that half-a-century-old belief by making mice, with deep cuts in the their skin, grow hair. Their study, which was reported in the journal Nature in 2007, showed that new hair follicles are formed in a mouse when it is wounded deep enough (nearly five millimetres).

But, importantly, the new follicles were slightly different from the ones that develop during the embryo stage. In embryos, follicles are produced by skin stem cells, which had very little to do with follicular development in the wounded mouse. Instead, the epidermal cells — that give rise to the outermost layer of the skin — were reprogrammed to make hair follicles. The instructions for this, they found, came from a class of proteins called “wnts”. The wnts proteins are known to play a role in hair follicle development in an embryo.

Regarding the latest study Carlsson said, “We have to find clinically acceptable ways to turn this gene on. But finding such drugs may take many years. Our next goal is to systematically screen for compounds that will do this trick.”

That trick will be a blessing for the estimated half the world population which experiences hair thinning by the age of 50.

Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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