Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center discovered cells which could be the answer to treating gray hair and balding. 

A team accidentally stumbled across the new findings while researching a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerves, called Neurofibromatosis Type 1.

“Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumors form, we ended up learning why hair turns gray and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair,” said Dr. Lu Le, Associate Professor of Dermatology at UT Southwestern, in a press statement. “With this knowledge, we hope in the future to create a topical compound or to safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems.”

The team found a protein called KROX20, which is normally associated with nerve development, can turn on in skin cells to create hair shafts. The hair shaft cells then produce another protein called stem cell factor (SCF) that is essential to hair pigmentation. 

The researchers found that when they removed KROX20-producing cells in mice, the animals lost all their hair and went bald. When the team removed SCF cells, the mice hair turned white.

While scientists were already aware of the general science of hair growth and hair pigmentation, they didn't know what happens when cells move down to the base of hair follicles, which cells make SCF and the involvement of KROX20.

Le said researchers will now try to find out if SCF and KROX20 stop working properly on older people leading to graying and balding. They'll also look into male balding patterns.

The research could even provide answers to why people age in general since graying and balding are some of the first signs of aging.