Skip to comments.Gray hairs may unlock mysteries of skin cancer
Posted on 12/27/2004 6:44:27 PM PST by Coleus
It turns out that melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, involves melanocytes, the cells that help color hair and skin.
So researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston decided to investigate what happens when these cells become depleted, allowing hair to go gray.
Preventing the graying of hair is not our goal, said senior researcher David E. Fisher. What we really want is to come up with treatments for melanoma.
The scalp contains a reservoir of adult stem cells that provide a continuous supply of these color-making cells, they found. But as the body ages, these cells become depleted and sometimes begin to develop in the wrong part of the hair follicle.
The research, published online Thursday by the journal Science, originally focused on mice. But the team also studied human scalp tissue at various ages and found a similar pattern of cell depletion.
It was known that the pigment was not well transferred into gray hair, but the actual mechanism had not been understood, Emi K. Nishimura, a co-author of the paper, said in a telephone interview.
She said a gene called Bcl 2 is essential to maintain melanocytes. The researchers found that when they raised mice lacking this gene the animals went gray quickly and dramatically shortly after birth.
Fisher suggested that people who get gray prematurely may have a mutation of this gene.
The question they now want to answer is why the melanocyte cells begin dying off as the body ages.
These cells generally are good at surviving, being able to live through ultraviolet radiation at the beach, for example that would kill many other cells. That can be good when people go out in the sun, because the melanocytes produce pigment that protects the skin.
Unfortunately, they retain that ability to survive when they become cancerous, Fisher said.
So, he said, the researchers wondered whether they could find a back door to killing the cells by studying how they die naturally, and that led to their research on graying.
Fisher said that by understanding how genes such as Bcl 2 protect the cells and what pathways they act on, scientists can look for ways to block that action with a drug.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: .edu
The news: Gray hair may yield clues to help fight cancer.
The connection: Melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, involves melanocytes, the cells that help color hair and skin. Researchers investigated what happens when these cells become depleted, allowing hair to go gray.
The test: The scalp contains adult stem cells that provide a continuous supply of these color-making cells, researchers found. But as the body ages, these cells become depleted and sometimes begin to develop in the wrong part of the hair follicle.
Oh great, something else to worry about.