July 29, 2022 – While upwards of 80% of men and nearly half of women have substantial hair loss in their lifetime, there are two FDA-approved medications for male-pattern hair loss and one for women.
But as millions worldwide search for a way to slow or stop balding, a single chemical has stepped up to the plate.
New research from the University of California, Riverside suggests the cure for baldness resides in understanding just one thing: transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β). The study, published in the Biophysical Journal, identifies TGF-β – one of many small proteins called cytokines that help control other immune system cells and blood cells – as the moderator of the hair follicle growth cycle, determining when hair follicle cells grow and when they die.
By studying hair follicles – a source of stem cells – the research also dips into regenerative medicine and proposes a model to speed wound healing.
“In science fiction, when characters heal quickly from injuries, the idea is that stem cells allowed it,” UC Riverside mathematical biologist and study co-author Qixuan Wang, PhD, said in a news release. “In real life, our new research gets us closer to understanding stem cell behavior, so that we can control it and promote wound healing.”
TGF-β to the Rescue
The power of TGF-β depends on its intensity, and the researchers describe the chemical’s mechanism as a “threshold-like switch”: Too much of the chemical causes the cell to die, causing hair to fall out. At the same time, lesser doses allow the cell to grow and divide.
Being able to precisely control TGF-β levels and understand how the chemical interacts with specific genes could allow future scientists to stimulate hair growth, according to researchers.
Your Shape-Shifting Cells
Stem cells are like blank canvases – the body can program them to turn into other types of cells. Within hair follicles, stem cells play a unique role that captured the researchers’ attention: Hair follicles are the only organ in the human body that constantly regenerates, even without injury, according to researchers.
“Even when a hair follicle kills itself, it never kills its stem cell reservoir. When the surviving stem cells receive the signal to regenerate, they divide, make new cells, and develop into a new follicle,” Wang said.
The bald truth is that by focusing on these unique regenerative cells, researchers hope to promote complete wound healing, which requires hair regeneration.
“Potentially, our work could offer something to help people suffering from a variety of problems,” said Wang.