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Hairless mice get new coats

Hair-loss sufferers have new hope today after a study of mice offers potentially dramatic results through experimental gene therapy.

Johns Hopkins University’s Catherine C. Thompson, PhD, and colleagues investigated a group of hairless mice that lacked a gene called, appropriately enough, “Hairless”. Their findings suggest a way for researchers to regenerate the hair follicles of men and women suffering alopecia, or premature baldness.

Hair follicles are different from other skin cells in that they behave more like tiny organs, with the ability to regenerate.

The life cycle of the hair cell is more complex that we might think. Yes, the cells grow hair. But each follicle eventually shrinks to a shadow of its former self. Then, somehow, the stem cells inside the follicle come to life and regenerate the follicle, which is then able to grow a new hair.

As alopecia patients know all too well, this process is imperfect; when a problem exists, the result is hair thinning or baldness. Lab researchers used the hairless mice (those lacking the Hairless gene) as a model for humans suffering inexplicable hair loss. At first, these mice grew normal-looking hair. But as the hair follicles passed through the life cycle but failed the regenerate, the hairs fell out and didn’t grow back.

Thompson’s team genetically engineered hairless mice to produce the Hairless protein in specific cells within the hair follicle, with amazing results. The mice grew – and continued to grow – thick fur.

This research shows that the Hairless gene only works when it receives specific chemical signals at exactly the right moment during the follicle cycle. Scientists are now a step closer to knowing what those signals are and when to give them.

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