By BBN Staff: Aimee Flores, a Belizean student completing her Ph.D in Cellular and Molecular Biology at UCLA in Los Angeles, California was the lead researcher of a group from the university that discovered a new way to activate the stem cells in hair follicles to make hair grow, which may lead to new drugs that could promote hair growth for people suffering from baldness or a condition known as alopecia, which causes hair loss.
The groundbreaking new research, which was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, will serve as Flores’ dissertation thesis for her doctoral program. She was the study’s first author, and as lead researcher carried out the bulk of the experiments for the research. Flores carried out her research under senior scientists Heather Christofk and William Lowry, both of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA.
“Through this study, we gained a lot of interesting insight into new ways to activate stem cells,” Flores said. “The idea of using drugs to stimulate hair growth through hair follicle stem cells is very promising given how many millions of people, both men and women, deal with hair loss. I think we’ve only just begun to understand the critical role metabolism plays in hair growth and stem cells in general; I’m looking forward to the potential application of these new findings for hair loss and beyond.”
Hair follicle stem cells are long-lived cells in the hair follicle; they are present in the skin and produce hair throughout a person’s lifetime. They are “quiescent,” meaning they are normally inactive, but they quickly activate during a new hair cycle, which is when new hair growth occurs. The quiescence of hair follicle stem cells is regulated by many factors. In certain cases they fail to activate, which is what causes hair loss.
The team identified two drugs that, when applied to the skin of mice, influenced hair follicle stem cells to activate to promote hair growth. The first drug, called RCGD423, activates a cellular signaling pathway, which increases lactate production. This in turn drives hair follicle stem cell activation and quicker hair growth. The other drug, called UK5099, alters cellular metabolism by forcing the increased production of lactate in the hair follicle stem cells to accelerate hair growth.
The research was supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine training grant, a New Idea Award from the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, an American Cancer Society Research Scholar Grant, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a Rose Hills Foundation Research Award and the Gaba Fund; the Rose Hills award and the Gaba Fund are administered through the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
Flores began her research for the Ph.D program at UCLA in 2013. Prior to that she had been researching limb regeneration at USC. Flores, in an interview with BBN, said she expects to wrap up her doctorate by the end of the year and said she plans to continue her stem cell and cancer research. She is currently studying the metabolism of squamous cell carcinoma (a major form of skin cancer) and methods for treating it. According to Flores, the hair regeneration study is just one of several ongoing projects she is working on.
“My primary goal is to study stem cells as it relates to cancer,” Flores told BBN, adding that though her current research is on skin cancer, her findings have implications for many different types of cancers. Her end goal is to contribute in some meaningful way to enhancing cancer therapy. And while Flores says she hopes she is able to return home and carry out her research at some point, Belize currently doesn’t have the infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the level of research Flores is able to conduct at UCLA. Following the completion of her doctoral program, Flores will continue her stem cell and cancer research at UCLA.
Flores also gave special thanks to her family, who she says always supported her and enabled her to focus on her studies and her research. BBN congratulates Flores on her historic achievement and wishes her the best in her future endeavors.
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