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A team of scientists from the University of Southern California figured out which genes control hair growth. Could manipulating hair stem cells soon cure baldness?

Male-pattern baldness is a problem that affects huge numbers of men. Most men will have lost some of their hair by the time they are 35, and a whopping 85 percent of those who are over 50 experience extensive hair thinning. We don't need statistics to tell us that a good portion of balding men would rather have kept their full head of hair. This is doubly true for balding women, who make up a very significant minority of hair-loss patients in the US, at 40 percent. Might they be in luck in the future?

A team of scientists from the University of Southern California led by Dr Krzysztof Kobielak have been working hard all year long, and have published a total of three studies that reveal how the hair-growth cycle works in amazing detail. The team discovered exactly which genes are responsible for hair growth, and in what situation they trigger hair growth vs hair loss. 

These discoveries have the clear potential to make millions of balding men and women really happy in the future, but they could also do much more than that. Let's take a look at the team's findings. 

The Genes That Control Our Hair Growth

Dr Kobielak  and his team found out that genes known as the Wnt and BMP signaling pathways control the hair growth cycle. They published their findings about how these genes trigger hair growth and regeneration at the beginning of 2013, in the journal Stem Cell.

Building on that research, the team analyzed two proteins known as Smad1 and Smad5 that are found within the BMP signalling pathway. In their second study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team shares its discovery that these proteins are responsible for creating signals that control stem cells during the growth of new hairs. At that point, the team already came forward with the idea that manipulating Wnt signalling could trigger hair growth. 

In their latest study, published in November 2013, the team found that problems within a specific gene called Wnt7b cause hair loss. We now know exactly which genes cause hair growth and loss, and might soon be ready for the next stage in which we can actively change the way in which our hair grows. 

How does it all work? A decreased signalling of the so-called BMP pathway combined with an increased signalling of the Wnt pathway causes hair growth. Reverse that situation, and the hair follicle stem cells known as hfSCs go into a resting state, meaning hair doesn't grow. 

The BMP and Wnt pathways have total control over the hfSCs stem cells, so altering the way in which these pathways signal could change the hair growth pattern of a person.

It doesn't need to end with hair, however. Dr Krzysztof Kobielak is much more ambitious: "Since BMP signaling has a key regulatory role in maintaining the stability of different types of adult stem cell populations, the implication for future therapies might be potentially much broader than baldness and could include skin regeneration for burn patients and skin cancer."

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