While various snake-oil salesmen claim to offer products that can cure baldness, science hasn't been able to crack the mystery of how to stimulate hair regrowth. But a real baldness cure could be a step closer thanks to a team of scientists who have uncovered the cells that give rise to hair growth and also the genetic triggers behind hair turning gray.

As with many fascinating scientific breakthroughs, this one came by accident, with a team of dermatology researchers at UT Southwestern inadvertently making the discovery while investigating a rare genetic form of cancer.

"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," explains Dr Lu Le. "

The researchers were investigating a protein called KROX20, and they discovered that for skin cells to become a hair shaft they need to also produce that specific protein. When the KROX20-producing cells were deleted in mice, no hair grew.

The team also discovered a protein called stem cell factor (SCF) is essential for hair pigmentation. In mice models the team deleted the SCF gene from hair-producing cells and saw the animals' hair turn white.

The future for this research is to try to understand how production of the KROX20 protein is interrupted as people age, as well as understanding what causes the SCF gene to stop working and bring on gray hair. The research offers an interesting insight into the triggers of aging, but on a more pragmatic level it may serve up a path to battling baldness.

"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," Dr Le promisingly noted.