Wednesday, November 25, 1998 Published at 04:28 GMT
Hairy mice hint at cure for baldness
Hair-raising: Exceptionally hairy mice were produced
Researchers at the Howard Hughes Institute at the University of Chicago have managed to get hair follicles to form in the mature skin cells of mice.
This is remarkable because follicle formation is a once-in-a-lifetime event that ordinarily happens only during early the earliest stages of human development.
Once hair follicles are gone, they are not replaced.
If this is correct, the scientists may be able to use this knowledge to develop treatments that will promote the re-growth of hair in bald men.
"Beta-catenin can cause adult epithelial cells to revert to an embryonic-like state where they have the ability to choose to become a hair follicle," said Professor Elaine Fuchs, the lead author on the paper.
"This is exciting because current treatments for baldness only work if there are living follicles left, or if the patient undergoes hair transplant surgery.
"Our research shows that new follicles can be created from adult skin cells if certain molecular players are induced to act."
The Chicago team have shown that beta-catenin performs two very different functions.
In adult cells, it helps to bind neighbouring cells together so that they can "talk" to each other.
Together, these two molecules bind to the DNA in a cell and tell it to become a hair follicle.
The mice, which were genetically engineered to have plenty of beta-catenin in their cells, were said to be "exceptionally hairy".
However, this led to problems with benign follicle tumours forming on the mice.
"This is a case of too much of a good thing leading to a bad thing," said Professor Fuchs. She cautioned that much further work was required before hair growth could be induced without the danger of unwanted side-effects.
Scientists have been able to grow hair follicles in the laboratory for about a decade.
The difficulty has been finding the right chemical messengers that might trigger the re-growth of hair in men suffering from male pattern baldness - the main cause of hair loss.
But the knowledge gained by such experiments may also help us to prevent the excessive and unwanted growth of hair experienced by some women.
It could also be used to engineer sheep with thicker wool.
Pictures: Linda Degenstein and Chuck Wellek