Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that hair follicles in adult mice can regenerate if awakened by genes active in developing embryos.
These findings show that, like newts and salamanders, mammals have the power to regenerate cells. A better understanding of this process could lead to novel treatments for hair loss.
In this study, researchers found that wound healing in a mouse model created an “embryonic window” of opportunity. Dormant embryonic molecular pathways were awakened, sending stem cells to the area of injury. Unexpectedly, the regenerated hair follicles originated from non-hair-follicle stem cells.
Wound healing triggered an embryonic state in the skin which made it receptive to receiving instructions from “WNT” proteins”. WNTs are a network of proteins responsible for hair-follicle development.
Investigators generally believe that mammals have no true regenerative qualities*.
Researchers believe they can influence wound healing with WNTs or other proteins that allow the skin to heal in a way that has less scarring and includes all the normal structures of the skin, including hair follicles and oil glands.
By introducing more WNT proteins to the wound, the researchers found that they could take advantage of the embryonic genes to promote hair-follicle growth. Conversely by blocking WNT proteins, they found that they could stop the production of hair follicles.
Increased WNT signaling doubled the number of new hair follicles. The process could be used to manipulate hair-follicle regeneration, leading to new ways to treat hair loss. If researchers can effectively control hair growth, then they could potentially find cures for male pattern baldness and other hair and scalp disorders.
The study’s investigators are pursuing a patent application related to hair-follicle neogenesis on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania
*The liver can regenerate in large portions, but it is not “de novo regeneration” – some of the original liver has to remain so that it can regenerate.