Unwanted hair growth may soon be under control
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Unwanted hair growth may soon be under control

Researchers at the Max- Planck Immunology Institute in Freiburg, Germany have succeeded in identifying an important mechanism for hair formation. They claim to have found a protein switch that regulates the activity of numerous genes, which carry the information for the keratin protein structure of hair fiber. Keratin is an extremely hard resistant protein product that gives hair its basic structure and density. After identifying the existence of the protein switches, the scientists began research on figuring out exactly how they work. They claim their research may lead to new ways for slowing down or completely inhibiting unwanted hair growth.

The question of how the immune system functions on a molecular level is what the scientists working with Professor Thomas Boehm focused on. The discovery of the protein switch for hair formation was accidental. Its origins came out of an investigation of a genetic defect in mice which are affected by a hereditary immune weakness and hair loss. "We asked ourselves, which gene is actually defective in these naked mice, because this gene must be responsible for growing the hair as well", said Boehm

Hair grows from hair follicles in cycles of growth and resting phases. The control of this cycle is influenced by many factors. There are many different treatments available to block unwanted hair growth. In the newest treatments, excess hair growth is treated by influencing the hormones in the body, but this can lead to side effects.

Experiments by the Freiburger researchers suggest that hormone treatments may not be necessary. Instead of an oral drug, a local topical treatment with a cream or a special shampoo to stimulate the newly identified protein switch may be all that is required. This clearly reduces possible side effects. The Freiburger scientists have made a considerable step forward with their research of hair growth and how it is controlled.

Researchers at the Max-Planck institute are now thinking about establishing their own company. They also believe that this success can lead to many unexpected applications for other medical problems in humans.

The above article is an approximate translation from a press release issued by the Max Planck Institute in German. It has received much interest from the internet's hair community, but it actually says very little that is new. The gene mutation in nude mice is apparently involved in the hair cycle - we have known this for many years. Those hair follicles that fully develop, produce hair fibers that are rather fragile and easily breakable due to the lack of keratin production, hence the mouse has almost no visible hair (so it is called the "nude" mouse). Apparently, the same gene defect also compromises the immune system.

The defect is rare in humans but does occur. Dr Angela Christiano identified two human cases comparable to the mouse model late last year (see the news article in this section of further details). We contacted one of the authors who worked on that research study who now works in Germany and he also fails to see anything new in the annoucement from Freiburg.

I assume the scientists in Freiburg will try and develop a topical gene therapy to correct or modulate the apparent gene defect in the hair follicle. This is just another switch involved in hair follicle development and cycling same as for the hairless gene, same as for beta catenin same as for wnt genes etc. There will be many of these gene switch discoveries to be made in the coming years and with each one the Drs involved will make a big splash and most of them will then disappear from sight never to be seen again.

The Freiburg scientists want to set up a company so they need to impress their potential investors. The press release is probably directed entirely at the investors. If the investors are non-scientists (likely) then this annoucement makes it sound like the scientists are making a commercially viable discovery. The reality is this "discovery" was made some time ago and not by the scientists in Freiburg.

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