In promising news on the baldness front, an international team led by researchers at Northwestern University claims in a recently-published study to have successfully gene-hacked mice to stimulate hair growth.
As the scientists detailed in their study, published last week in the journal PNAS, they were able to use microRNA to hack hair follicle stem cells in mice, in the latest effort to use genetic science to combat hair loss.
In a press release, the researchers compare follicle stem cells to joints — over time, these stem cells will stiffen, making it much harder for them to grow hair.
“A lot of times we still have stem cells,” Rui Yi, a pathologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the corresponding author of the study, said in a university press release, “but they may not be able to generate hair.”
With this information in mind, the researchers set out to investigate whether they could use genetic manipulation to re-soften those follicles — and thus, hopefully, allow the stem cells to start generating strands of hair again.
Excitingly, they found that a particular microRNA — in short, a small strand of non-coding RNA that works to regulate gene expression — plays an incredibly important role in, well, the softness of things.
Dubbed miR-205, they deduced that this tiny cellular strand was one of the most highly-expressed microRNAs in both hair germ progenitor and skin stem cells. Armed with that insight, they worked to manipulate mouse stem cells to produce more of this microRNA — and shortly thereafter, new hair began to sprout.
The rodent cells “started to grow hair in 10 days,” Yi said in a statement. “These are not new stem cells being generated. We are stimulating the existing stem cells to grow hair.”
And in another big win, manipulating levels of miR-205 was successful in stimulating hair growth in both young and old mice. Balding rodents of all ages, rejoice!
Of course, right now, this potential genetic solution to hair loss has yet to be replicated in people. But next, the researchers plan to test whether they can replicate the study results with a topical solution. If successful, such a breakthrough could stand to pave the way for a new topical baldness treatment for humans, too.
“Our study demonstrates the possibility of stimulating hair growth by regulating cell mechanics,” said Yi. “Because of the potential to deliver microRNA by nanoparticles directly into the skin, next we will test whether topically delivered miR-205 can stimulate hair growth first in mice.”
“If successful,” Yi continued, “we will design experiments to test whether this microRNA can promote hair growth potentially in humans.”
More on genetics and balding: Scientists Are Working on a Gene Hacking Drug That Could Treat Baldness