Evidence behind reports of new baldness cure is a little thin
"Scientists studying cancer stumble on 'breakthrough' in search for baldness cure," announces The Daily Telegraph, adding that not only does this mean "a cream or ointment may soon cure baldness or stop hair turning grey" but also it could one day ... explain why we age".
Sadly for those of us with grey, or no, hair on top, these claims are arguably premature.
Researchers were actually conducting a study in mice looking into a rare genetic condition called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumours to grow along the nerves, when they discovered the role a protein called KROX20 plays in hair colour.
The KROX20 protein is produced in specific cells within each individual hair follicle. This in turn switches on production of another protein called SCF. This SCF protein is needed to support the mature pigment (colour) producing cells in the hair follicle, and if it is not produced the mice lose their hair colour and become white. If the mice lack the KROX20-producing cells completely, they cannot produce any new hair and become bald.
While the basic biology of cells in different mammals is very similar, researchers are likely to want to perform tests on human cells in the laboratory to confirm the findings apply to humans.
This advance does not automatically mean that researchers are "on the cusp" of curing baldness or grey hair. The research is at an early stage, and it is not yet known whether the loss of hair colour is reversible and, if so, how it might be reversed.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Texas and was funded through various grants from the National Institutes of Health.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Genes & Development.
While it's necessary to explain why a particular piece of research might be important, the predictions of what might happen as a result of this study are premature.
The University of Texas issued a press release about the study and it would appear that this formed the basis of the Telegraph's and the Daily Mail's coverage. Both describe the research in very similar terms to the wording in the press release.
It is the press release which suggests that "The research also could provide answers about why we age in general as hair graying and hair loss are among the first signs of aging".
It is certainly not possible to say at this stage whether these very specific hair-related processes are related more widely to ageing.
What kind of research was this?
This was animal research which has looked at the biology of hair greying and hair loss.
The researchers were actually investigating what seemed to be a completely different topic – neurofibromatosis – which causes benign tumours (neurofibromas) to develop in the covering (called the "sheath") of nerves.
However, they found that one strain of mice that they genetically engineered to study this condition actually developed grey fur early in life. Therefore they carried out more experiments to look at why this was, and what they could learn about hair greying.
This type of research is commonly used to get a very detailed understanding of the biological processes that go on in the body. When researchers have a better understanding of how such a process works it helps them to work out ways they might be able to stop them if required (for example if they normally lead to hair greying or loss) and help people when these processes go wrong.
However, results are very early stage and much more research is needed before any new treatments could be developed.
What did the research involve?
The researchers genetically engineered mice to stop producing a protein called SCF – Stem Cell Factor – in a specific group of cells which also produces a protein called KROX20. They found, to their surprise, that these mice lost all hair colour. This started when they were around 30 days old, and about nine months later the mice's hair was completely white.
The KROX20 protein was known to switch on certain genes during development, including those important in making the fatty coverings (sheaths) of nerves. It is also active in certain cells within the hair follicles. Once researchers discovered its effect on hair colour they did further experiments into what role these cells were playing in hair colouration.
For example, they looked at the levels of pigment (melanin) in the hair over time. They also investigated exactly what type of cells were producing KROX20, and where they were found in the hair follicle. The researchers also looked at what happened if they killed off the KROX20-producing cells at a key point in their hair production cycle.
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that the cells in the hair follicles which produced KROX20 would normally also produce SCF.
This SCF was found to be needed to maintain mature pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the hair follicle.
If the KROX20-producing cells did not also produce SCF, the mice's follicles lost mature melanocytes, and their coats lost their colour because no new pigment (melanin) was being deposited into the hair as it grew. This process started early on in the mice's lives – by the time these mice were 11 days old the amount of melanin in the hair was starting to decrease.
The researchers found that the KROX20-producing cells were developing from the same line of cells that produced keratinocytes – a type of cell commonly found in the outer layer of skin (epidermis).
These cells were found initially in only a restricted area of the hair follicle, but gradually they increased in numbers and also spread to other areas in the hair follicle. This included contributing to the formation of the hair shaft.
The researchers also found that if they killed off the KROX20-producing cells in the hair follicle, then the mice grew no new hair.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers concluded that they had identified a group of "progenitor [cell]s which regulate hair growth and pigmentation", in part by helping maintain pigment-producing cells (melanocytes).
The current study identified a group of cells in the hair follicles of mice which are important both in forming the hair shaft to allow hair growth, and also in maintaining hair colour.
So far this research has been in mice, but the basic biology of cells in mammals is very similar, so it seems likely that the findings would also apply to humans. Researchers are also likely to want to perform tests on human cells in the laboratory to confirm their findings.
The findings represent an advance in what is known about how hair grows and maintains its colour. However, this doesn't automatically mean the researchers are "on the cusp of developing a cream or ointment to cure baldness or stop hair turning grey" as suggested in the Mail.
The research is at an early stage, and the researchers themselves note that they still need to carry out studies to look at whether the loss of hair colour is reversible. Carrying out research takes time, and not every advance in understanding results in successful treatments.
Read more advice about hair loss and possible treatment options.
Links To The Headlines
Scientists studying cancer stumble on 'breakthrough' in search for baldness cure. The Daily Telegraph, May 7 2017
Links To Science
Liao C, Booker RC, Morrison SJ, Le L. Identification of hair shaft progenitors that create a niche for hair pigmentation. Genes and Development. Published online May 2 2017