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Rockefeller scientists identify 'natural' proteins that push stem cells to produce hair, not skin

The clearest picture to date of how two proteins determine the destiny of a stem cell that is genetically programmed to develop into either hair or skin epidermis is emerging with mouse embryos as models for human biology from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Rockefeller University. The scientists' latest results are reported in this week's (March 20) issue of the journal Nature.

The proteins, called Wnt and noggin, act in concert to set the stage for the stem cell's developmental pathway into a hair follicle rather than skin, says HHMI investigator Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., professor and head of the Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at Rockefeller.

These two proteins help change the stem cell's shape so that it can separate from adjoining cells and move downward -- a developmental step that is essential for a hair follicle to form from a stem cell.

Because the Wnt and noggin proteins occur naturally in humans, the research of Fuchs and her research team may enhance understanding of stem cells in humans. "These results might prove to be clinically relevant," Fuchs adds.

The Wnt pathway involved in hair growth has already been implicated in the spread of some cancers, such as colon and breast cancer. In addition, the same process that leads to the separation of a stem cell from other cells may shed insight into how a cancer cell metastasizes, or spreads, from its host tumor, Fuchs explains.

The research may also prove relevant to a much less serious but more common condition, baldness.

"Skin turns over every two weeks, so there is an enormous reservoir of stem cells there," Fuchs notes. "To understand the biology and development of stem cells in general, we are trying to answer the question of whether we can coax some 'skin' stem cells to become hair. These findings reveal some of the natural signals that promote the process of forming hair follicles."

While at the University of Chicago, b
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Contact: Joseph Bonner
bonnerj@mail.rockefeller.edu
212-327-8998
Rockefeller University
19-Mar-2003


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