The scientists say that this has translated into successful hair regrowth in experiments they have carried out on lab rats, and could eventually lead to a new generation of drugs that would promote hair regrowth in individuals suffering from alopecia or baldness.
The group was led by Heather Christofk and William Lowry and they have just published the findings of their study in the peer reviewed journal Nature Cell Biology.
Focusing on hair cell activation
The research focused on the fact that hair follicle cells are normally “quiescent”, meaning they are only intermittently active during a cycle of new hair growth. In individuals suffering form hair loss conditions this cycle is disrupted or arrested, leading to thinner hair or baldness.
The scientists pinpointed the fact that hair follicle stem cell metabolism is different from other cells found in skin, mainly because they in which hair follicles metabolise nutrient glucose from the blood stream, which is ultimately processed as a metabolite called pryuvate.
The study findings note that the cells then can either send pyruvate to their mitochondria - the part of the cell that creates energy - or can convert pyruvate into another metabolite called lactate.
Hair follicle stem cell metabolism
Drilling down on this process led the scientists to an important finding and greater understanding of how crucial the hair follicle’s ability to make lactate is in triggering growth.
"Our observations about hair follicle stem cell metabolism prompted us to examine whether genetically diminishing the entry of pyruvate into the mitochondria would force hair follicle stem cells to make more lactate, and if that would activate the cells and grow hair more quickly," said Christofk, an associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular and medical pharmacology.
Not surprisingly, the lab tests showed that by blocking the production of lactate genetically in mice hair follicle stem cell activation was prevented, whereas by increasing the lactate production using the same means, activation was accelerated.
The potential for topical drug therapies
"Before this, no one knew that increasing or decreasing the lactate would have an effect on hair follicle stem cells," said Lowry, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology.
"Once we saw how altering lactate production in the mice influenced hair growth, it led us to look for potential drugs that could be applied to the skin and have the same effect."
Advancing the study, the scientists identified two drugs – RCGD423, which activates a signalling path linked to lactate production, and UK5099, which blocks pyruvate in turn enhancing lactate production.
Moving forward, the scientists say they are aiming to develop potential applications for these findings, while both drugs are now covered by provisional patent applications for hair growth.