Discovery of a chemical that controls life and death in hair follicles

New research into factors that control the life and death of hair follicle cells could help people with baldness, as well as heal wounds.

The discovery can help end baldness and speed recovery

Scientists have discovered that a single chemical is the key to controlling when hair follicle cells divide and when they die. This breakthrough can not only lead to an effective treatment for baldness, but ultimately speed up wound healing as the follicles are a source of stem cells.

In the human body, most cells have a certain shape and function that is determined during embryonic development that does not change. A blood cell, for example, cannot turn into a nerve cell, or vice versa. However, stem cells are like empty tiles in a game of Scrabble. They can transform into other types of cells.

Stem cells’ adaptability makes them valuable for repairing damaged tissues or organs.

Cross section of hair follicle

Cross section of the hair follicle. Credit: UCR

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

“In real life, our new research brings us closer to understanding stem cell behavior, so we can control it and promote wound healing,” Wang said. This research was detailed in an article recently published in Biophysical Journal.

In response to wounds, the liver and stomach regenerate itself. However, Wang’s team of researchers studied the hair follicle because it is the only organ in humans that regenerates automatically and periodically, even without injury.

Scientists have discovered how TGF-beta, a type of protein, controls the process by which cells in hair follicles, including stem cells, divide, form new cells, or regulate their death – ultimately causing the entire hair follicle to die.

“TGF-beta has two opposite roles. It helps activate some hair follicle cells to produce new life and, later, helps regulate the process of apoptosis.”

As with many chemicals, it is the quantity that makes the difference in the outcome. If a cell produces a certain amount of TGF-beta, it activates cell division. However, too much of it causes programmed cell death.

Nobody knows exactly why hair follicles kill themselves. According to some hypotheses, it is an inherited trait from animals that shed their fur to survive hot summer temperatures or attempt to camouflage.

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

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

Since many animals, including humans, have a skin covered with hair, optimal wound healing requires the regeneration of hair follicles. The ability to more precisely control TGF-beta levels could also cure baldness in a day, which bothers millions of people around the world.

“Our work has the potential to offer something to help people with a variety of problems,” Wang said.

Reference: “A probabilistic rationale model regarding the regulation of hair follicle cell fate by TGF-ß” by Catherine Dinh and Kechuan Wang, June 16, 2022, Biophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.bpj.2022.05.035

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