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Scientists soften hair follicles using microRNA to regrow hair

[July 7, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Hair growth depends on the health of dermal papillae (DP) cells, which regulate the hair follicle growth cycle. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Understanding the biology of aging is a central theme in modern scientific research. One observable and often lamented result of the aging process is hair loss. With age, hair follicles lose their vigor, making it harder to produce new strands of hair.

However, a new study from Northwestern Medicine has unveiled a groundbreaking revelation: just as stiffened joints can hinder mobility in people, it appears the stem cells of hair follicles can also grow stiff, obstructing the ability to grow hair. The good news is, if these cells can be softened, they're more likely to generate hair.


Northwestern's research team has now unlocked a method to achieve this softening effect, opening new possibilities for treating hair loss. The team's findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), offer a glimpse into an innovative approach to restoring hair growth by manipulating the very elements that initiate it: the hair follicle stem cells.

The investigators focused their work on a specific tiny RNA known as miR-205, which they discovered can effectively "soften" the rigidity of stem cells. By amplifying the production of this microRNA, the scientists were able to reverse the cell stiffness, thereby promoting hair growth.


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To further the credibility of their research, they engineered a practical experiment with mice, which demonstrated the efficacy of this method. When scientists genetically tweaked the mice's stem cells to produce more miR-205, the result was impressive: hair growth was promoted in both young and old mice alike.

Corresponding author Rui Yi, the Paul E. Steiner Research Professor of Pathology and professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, revealed their triumph: “They started to grow hair in 10 days,” he stated.


The significance of the study doesn't lie in the creation of new stem cells, but rather in the optimization of existing ones. Yi continued, “These are not new stem cells being generated. We are stimulating the existing stem cells to grow hair. A lot of times we still have stem cells, but they may not be able to generate the hair.”

HF-SC compartment is mechanically active and exhibits differential mechanical stiffness and actomyosin contractility during activation. (CREDIT: PNAS)

The study puts forth a promising prospect for those affected by hair loss. “Our study demonstrates the possibility of stimulating hair growth by regulating cell mechanics," Yi further explained. The findings shed light on a crucial aspect of aging that has previously remained obscured – the mechanical properties of cells and their role in cellular function.


Looking forward, the team is excited about the potential applications of their discovery. "Because of the potential to deliver microRNA by nanoparticles directly into the skin, next we will test whether topically delivered miR-205 can stimulate hair growth first in mice. If successful, we will design experiments to test whether this microRNA can promote hair growth potentially in humans," Yi shared, laying out the roadmap for future research.

The study, conducted in genetically engineered mouse models, employed advanced microscopy tools to delve deep into the cellular behavior of the subject animals. The team used atomic force microscopy to accurately measure the stiffness of the cells. Moreover, two-photon microscopy was utilized to monitor cell behaviors in live animals, allowing them a real-time insight into the microscopic world of hair follicles.


The groundbreaking study exemplifies how understanding and manipulating cellular characteristics can lead to tangible, applicable results. While the research is still in its initial stages, it’s a massive stride towards harnessing our body's natural processes to combat hair loss.

This discovery represents not only an evolution in our understanding of hair follicle stem cells and their role in hair production, but it also redefines the boundaries of what we can achieve by manipulating the building blocks of life itself. Northwestern Medicine's research serves as a beacon of hope for the millions of individuals around the world struggling with hair loss, paving the way for potential treatments that work in harmony with our body's inherent biology.


As science continues to peel back the layers of the enigma that is aging, we are continually presented with innovative strategies to slow, stop, and potentially even reverse some aspects of the aging process. By softening hair follicle stem cells to enhance hair growth, the Northwestern Medicine team has taken us one step closer to turning back the clock on hair loss, and possibly, on aging itself.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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