Hair today, gone tomorrow: New cure for baldness discovered

US researchers have identified the cells by accident

Hair today, gone tomorrow: New cure for baldness discovered

Undated file photo of a bald man | Image: Gareth Copley/PA Archive/PA Images

A baldness cure could be coming to a chemist near you.

US researchers have identified the cells that directly give rise to hair, as well as the mechanism that causes hair to turn grey.

It is thought the findings could one day help to identify possible treatments for balding and greying hair.

Dr Lu Le, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, says: "Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumours form, we ended up learning why hair turns grey and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair.

"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."

The researchers found that a protein, called KROX20, turns on in skin cells that become the hair shaft.

These hair cells then produce a protein called stem cell factor (SCF), that the researchers say is essential for hair pigmentation.

When they deleted the SCF gene in the hair cells in mice, the animal's hair turned white.

When they deleted the KROX20-producing cells, no hair grew and the mice became bald, according to the study.

The findings are published online in Genes & Development.

Scientists already knew that stem cells contained in a bulge area of hair follicles are involved in making hair and that SCF is important for pigmented cells.

But Dr Le says what they did not know in detail is what happens after those stem cells move down to the base, or bulb, of hair follicles - and which cells in the follicles produce SCF.

If cells with functioning KROX20 and SCF are present, they move up from the bulb, interact with pigment-producing melanocyte cells, and grow into pigmented hairs.

UT Southwestern researchers will now try to find out if the KROX20 in cells and the SCF gene stop working properly as people age, leading to greying and thinning hair seen in older people - as well as in male pattern baldness.

Henry McKean (left) and his locks with celebrity chef Rick Stein | Image via @HenryMcKean on Twitter

'Embracing grey gracefully'

Newstalk Drive's Henry McKean has talked to several people about hair balding and greying, including Sean Moncrieff.

"My hairline was receding for years, but you kind of go through a long period of thinking: 'Maybe it'll stop receding'.

"I remember on my 40th birthday going into a shop and it had a CCTV camera and there was a TV behind the counter but I could see the back of my head, and suddenly I realised I had a bald patch in the back of my head... and then I thought 'that's it, game over'".

"Everybody's probably unhappy with some aspect of their body - I think I'd be weird now if I had hair".

"I suppose one good thing is that you see people with odd shaped heads who go bald and that's really unfortunate - but my head is a beautiful thing, so I'm happy with it"

Dr Siún Murphy is from Hair Restoration Blackrock (HRBR), who told Henry: "With all the advancing science, little enough has changed actually in the process of hair transplantation - bar, I suppose, the art of refining the procedure itself.

"The first thing that I would look at would be the back of your head, and I would check if you have enough hair to supply what we call a 'donor area' - the donor area is the hair we take front he back of your head, either by extraction or by a strip.

Dr Siún Murphy | Image via @HenryMcKean on Twitter

"Like as if I was taking out a big mole from the back of your head: I'd take out a big strip of skin that's got lots of little follicles in their complete depth.

"And we take that and then it goes through our team of technicians and is gradually slivered up or made smaller to the point where it ends up as tiny follicles - and they are what we then transplant into the top of your head.

"So we don't actually grow it - it's all your own".

However Dr Murphy is skeptical of the latest US discovery: "I suppose the cure that we have found for baldness is transplantation, which is more of a redistribution than a cure".

Henry spoke to Colin from Sam's Barbers in Dublin's Dame Lane: "With the grey matter: embrace it, it's a manly thing. There's an awful lot of young people coming in now trying to get their hair grey."

And what do members of the public think?

One woman said: "I think people can accept variety and diversity now, and baldness looks really great on some young men - and really good on older men, too".

"Just try and make yourself happy: if you're happy with it going grey and you're happy with the way it looks, and if you present yourself well in other forms everybody will think you look good".

One man aged in his 70s, who started going grey in his 20s, told Henry: "Your health is everything, not your hair or anything like that".