Comb-overs might not be the only solution for those who are losing their hair. A molecule that prompts hair follicle development in utero might one day be used to treat hair loss or combat excess hair growth.

Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine used genetically engineered mouse embryos to demonstrate that the molecule, called laminin-511, signals embryonic stem cells in the skin to start growing hair.

The signal may also prompt development of other organs, such as kidneys and limbs.

“Now we have a signal protein that can support the microenvironment for hair development, and maybe also for hair renewal,” said Jing Gao, MD, a postdoctoral scholar in epithelial biology.

Gao is the lead author of a paper describing the finding published in the Aug. 1 issue of Genes & Development.

Laminin-511 made hair grow at a specific stage of embryonic development in mice, equivalent to about the eighth month in human pregnancy, but the researchers are hopeful it might work later in life, too. They’d like to put their findings to work against hair loss.

“There are a lot of different causes of hair loss,” Marinkovich said. Further research will test whether any forms of hair loss are influenced by laminin-511, he said.

“Injecting laminin-511 into the skin might, under some circumstances, promote hair growth,” he added.

If laminin-511 triggers hair growth after birth, Marinkovich expects it would be easy to use as a drug. Because the molecule acts between skin layers, rather than inside a cell, it could simply be injected into the area of skin where hair was lacking.

Cancer chemotherapy patients might be good candidates for testing laminin-511’s ability to regenerate hair, Marinkovich said. A signal protein that the study showed was activated by laminin-511, has some ability to encourage hair regrowth in chemotherapy patients, a hint that laminin-511 might help reverse chemotherapy hair loss.

In addition, injecting antibodies against laminin-511 might block hair growth, providing a potential alternative to current treatments such as laser hair removal.

Gao and Marinkovich say their work has implications beyond explaining how hair follicles mature.

“Our finding that laminin-511 stimulates primary cilia formation was pretty surprising,” Gao said. Primary cilia, the cellular “antennae” she observed, also help drive formation of the kidneys, craniofacial structures and limbs.

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