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Seeking answers to a hairy question

It's long been known that some of the most influential discoveries in science are the product of serendipity. But, as the 1st century Roman philosopher Seneca observed, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

Recently, a team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Veterans Administration made an unexpected discovery that was grounded in earlier work by Salk researchers Jean Rivier and Catherine Rivier. The investigators, who were originally studying brain-gut interactions in stress, stumbled on unanticipated effects of a chemical compound the Riviers had developed called astressin-B, which blocks a stress hormone called corticotrophin- releasing factor, or CRF. In mice, as in humans, stress can cause hair loss, and as mice engineered to overexpress CRF age, they lose hair and eventually become bald on their backs, making them visually distinct from their unaltered counterparts.

The UCLA and VA researchers injected astressin-B into the bald mice to observe how its CRF-blocking ability affected gastrointestinal tract function. The initial single injection had no effect, so the investigators continued the injections over five days to give the peptide a better chance of blocking the CRF receptors. They measured the inhibitory effects of this regimen on the stress-induced response in the colons of the mice and placed the animals back in their cages with their hairy counterparts.

About three months later, the investigators returned to these mice to conduct further gastrointestinal studies and found they couldn't distinguish them from their unaltered brethren. They had regrown hair on their previously bald backs.

The serendipitous discovery, which so far has been observed only in mice, is described in an article published in PLoS ONE. Whether it also happens in humans remains to be seen, say the researchers, who also treated the bald mice with minoxidil alone, which resulted in mild hair growth, as it does in humans. This suggests that astressin-B could also translate for use in human hair growth.

UCLA and the Salk Institute have applied for a patent on the use of the astressin-B peptide for hair growth.