WEDNESDAY, May 14, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- David Van Mater was trying to grow tumors, but ended up with hair instead.
The discovery could prove to be good news for people struggling with certain types of hair loss.
Van Mater, a University of Michigan graduate student, was researching the activities of a protein called beta-catenin in mice as part of an investigation into colon cancer. The protein is involved in the development of human embryos and is also activated in the majority of colon cancers. But no one knows exactly how it works.
Van Mater and his colleagues wanted to see if they could induce tumors by activating beta-catenin, and get rid of the tumors by turning off the protein.
The researchers applied a chemical called 4-OHT, which activates beta-catenin, to shaved areas on the backs of lab mice. To their surprise, no tumors appeared.
But they did see exaggerated growth of hair follicle cells along with other changes in the skin sections that seemed to indicate the hair was in its growth phase. Adult hair follicles go through a cycle consisting of periods of growth, regression and rest.
Dr. Andrzej Dlugosz, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan Medical School, suggested turning on the beta-catenin for just a short period of time, instead of the longer period they had tried for the tumor. The scientists started over, applying 4-OHT once, instead of every day, and doing it during the follicles' resting stage.
After 15 days, the mice had grown new hair that was exactly the same as the old hair, and went through the growth cycle as if it were normal.
"From a developmental standpoint, the most interesting part of the study is just by [turning on] beta-catenin for this very short period of time, we were able to put in place the full complex series of events needed for hair to regenerate," says Van Mater, who is lead author of a paper detailing the research in the May 15 issue of Genes & Development.
"The nice thing is that briefly turning on one molecule can activate the entire process and it's a very complicated process," adds Dlugosz.
But simply turning on the process is not enough to reverse male pattern baldness, say both Van Mater and Dlugosz.
"Male pattern baldness is a complicated process," Dlugosz says. "One of the major things that happens is that hair follicles become very, very tiny. Even if you can trigger the growth of those follicles, they're so small that any hair that's produced is not like normal hair."
However, it's possible that manipulating this pathway might help with other types of hair loss, such as loss from chemotherapy.
Other experts are even more sanguine.
"They found the on/off switch and just flicked it. I'm very impressed," says Dr. Ted Daly, director of pediatric dermatology at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y. "I wouldn't underestimate the ability to understand what the trigger is."
Daly also thinks the issue of miniaturization of hair follicles can eventually be overcome.