CNIO researchers activate hair growth by modifying immune cells

Posted: December 24, 2014 at 8:47 am

IMAGE:This is a skin whole mount section showing hair follicles (blue) surrounded by clusters of skin resident macrophages (red). The molecular communication between macrophages and hair follicle stem cells regulates... view more

Credit: Donatello Castellana, CNIO

How to restore hair loss is a task not undertaken exclusively by beauty practitioners. The discovery, now published by a group from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), reveals a novel angle to spur hair follicle growth. This also adds new knowledge to a broader problem: how to regenerate tissues in an adult organism, especially the skin.

The group has discovered an unexpected connection--a link between the body's defense system and skin regeneration. According to the authors of the study published today in PLOS Biology, cells from the immune system called macrophages-- those in charge of devouring invading pathogens, for example--are also responsible for activating skin stem cells and induce hair growth.

The regenerative ability of stem cells allows skin replenishment during a lifetime. But different factors can reduce their regenerative properties or promote their uncontrolled growth. When things go wrong, this can lead to aging and disease, including skin carcinomas. The discovery that macrophages activate skin stem cells may also have further implications beyond the possibility to develop therapeutic approaches for hair loss, but may also be relevant for cancer research.

The authors of the study are Mirna Perez-Moreno and Donatello Castellana, from the Epithelial Cell Biology Group of the BBVA Foundation-CNIO Cancer Cell Biology Programme, along with Ralf Paus, a hair immunobiology expert from the University of Manchester and Mnster.

"We have discovered that macrophages, cells whose main function is traditionally attributed to fight infections and wound repair, are also involved in the activation of hair follicle stem cells in non inflamed skin," says Perez-Moreno.

FIRST PROOF

The researchers did not investigate the relationship between macrophages and hair for fun. This work emerged more than four years ago from an observation made by Perez-Moreno while working on another research project. The mice she had been working with at that time received anti-inflammatory drugs, a treatment that also reactivated hair growth. Convinced that the explanation could reside in the existence of close communication between stem cells and immune cells --the Perez-Moreno's lab began to experiment with the different types of cells involved in the bodys defense system.

After years of investigation, they discovered that when stem cells are dormant, a fraction of macrophages die, due to a process known as apoptosis. This stimulated the secretion of factors from dying and living macrophages, which in turn activated stem cells, and that is when hairs began to grow again.

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CNIO researchers activate hair growth by modifying immune cells

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