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SYFY WIRE Medical Technology

Restarting the molecular process might make it possible to reverse hair loss

You won't have to wait for a full moon to grow back the hair you shed.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Werewolf with mug in cafe

Werewolves have it easy. Anyone who has experienced hair loss, and would rather not shave their head, has probably been through the frustration of trying to find a treatment that works. Even having your follicles controlled by the lunar cycle could start to sound appealing.

Lycanthropy would probably be the easiest way to regrow a full head (and everything else) of hair in no time. Maybe transforming into a hairy beast did something for David in An American Werewolf in London when the Moon was full, but a more permanent solution that isn’t straight out of a horror movie might be on the horizon. Researchers from Yale University have found a way to identify the molecular signals that trigger hair growth. Understanding exactly how follicle formation and regeneration happens will be crucial to developing ways to reverse hair loss.

“Tracing [the] events and signals [of hair growth] remains a challenge, as intermediate states across many critical transitions are unresolvable over real time and space,” the research team said in a study recently published in Developmental Cell.

Part of the reason it has been so difficult to create hair loss treatments that don’t make empty promises is because hair follicles regenerate so fast, it often appears like a blur. Capturing this at a cellular level and breaking it down has been nearly impossible until now. The process starts with the formation of hair follicle dermal condensates, cell clusters beneath the outer layer of the skin, or epidermis, that trigger and regulate hair growth, and these depend on a protein coding gene. These dermal condensates are hair follicle precursors that send signals for follicle formation and size to the epidermis. Hair you shed will then start to regrow.

Demystifying the genesis of hair involved sequencing RNA from — not werewolves — but mice, the next best thing. RNA is necessary to morph genetic information into proteins. If you need a protein coding gene for dermal condensates to form, you can see where this is going. The research team was able to take the phases of the process apart and then put them back together to see how a dermal cell develops over time. It was like slowing the morphogenesis of hair down to extreme slow motion. If the process is already superfast, you can only imagine what it would be for a hypothetical werewolf.

Another thing the researchers were able to find out was what molecular signals are fired by dermal condensates so hair can grow. These are the Wnt and sonic hedgehog (really) or SHH proteins, which act as signals for processes such as regeneration. Wnt controls many aspects of cell formation and development, while sonic hedgehog contributes to the growth, specialization, and shape of cells and organs. Genetically modifying these signals slowed hair growth down enough for each phase to be captured and further observed up close.

If the hair regeneration process can be recreated in a petri dish, it could mean there will be ways to regenerate hair in the future without painful hair transplant procedures or medications that may not perform miracles for everyone. Minoxidil (Rogaine) has been one of the most used and prescribed hair regrowth treatments for a while. However, whether you apply it topically or take it orally, the way it affects follicle formation can cause more hair to fall out before it starts to grow back in. It also takes months to see any real improvement in your hair, if you see it at all. Restarting the molecular process is unlikely to have side effects like this.

For now, if you are losing hair and happen to get bitten by a werewolf, it might not be so horrible. You’ll also have a legit excuse to howl at the Moon.