Hair: it's something that we all have. Some people fret over having too little of it. Others pluck, cut, shave, tweeze and wax in order to get rid of it. Some people even have too much hair in one place and not enough in another. As Rose Hoban reports, researchers are closer to finding a way to make them all happy with their hair.
There are scientists who study hair, and Angela Christiano from Columbia University is one of them. In her lab, she studies hair and the genes that control its growth. Recently, she did research on a large, extended Pakistani family that has unusually thick, wooly hair.
Christiano says big, extended families are great places to look for the genes that affect a specific trait. "We look across all the chromosomes, at once, and we look for regions where everyone who's got sparse hair has inherited the same piece of a chromosome than the people who don't have sparse hair," she explains.
"That leads us to chromosome 13, in this case. And then we tried to narrow it down as much as possible by adding more, and more affected families, and then finally we get to the small as we can and then we go in and sequence every gene in the region."
Christiano says she and her colleagues identified mutations in one particular gene that controls hair growth. "When it's disrupted," she says, "the subjects get either woolly hair, sparse hair, or some combination of both. With age, it then can lead to effectively no hair."
This particular gene helps to form a receptor protein on the surface of cells that make hair grow. These cell receptors can be easily manipulated. So, Christiano says, they're great targets for drugs.
She plans to look for compounds to target these receptors in two ways. "You knock it down, or to antagonize it, [that] would lead to a treatment for hair over-growth," she explains. "So if you wanted to remove hair on your legs, an antagonist, or something that shuts the receptor down, could be one approach to hair removal. And on the other side, which is to say, maybe something that [stimulates] this receptor would have some benefit to re-grow hair."
Christiano expects her next few years of research to focus on finding drug compounds that affect this newly identified gene.
No matter what these drugs do, there will probably be a market for selling them — because there are always people who think they have either too much hair… or too little.
Her paper is published in the journal Nature Genetics.