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Researchers from Children's Hospital Boston and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute looking for answers to the potentially deadly skin cancer, melanoma, may have inadvertently figured out why hair turns gray.
They were studying melanocytes—the cells that become cancerous in melanoma but also manufacture hair color pigment—when they
the loss of hair color was due to the gradual dying off of adult stem cells that form new melanocytes.
While the researchers are intrigued by figuring out why people go gray, they're most interested in sorting out the cellular signals that trigger the death of pigment cells so they can learn something about the opposite occurrence—melanocytes growing out of control to form melanoma.
Since cell survival in general is influenced by a gene called Bcl2, the research team analyzed mice lacking this gene and found that they lost their melanocyte stem cells—and quickly went gray—shortly after birth.
"This tells us there's a requirement for Bcl2 in normal hair follicle cycling," says researcher David Fisher, MD, PhD. "Eventually we hope to tap into this death pathway and use drugs to mimic the aging process so we can successfully treat melanoma."
Fisher was senior author on the paper, which appeared in the journal Science. His colleague, Emi Nishimura, MD, PhD, was the study's lead author.