Treating genetic diseases radically changes hair color

Call it Serendipity: While searching for a cure for a rare disease, the research team may have figured out how to genetically alter hair color. A discovery perhaps not of first importance, but it will undoubtedly be explored and exploited in the fairly near future.

In October 2019, The Atlantic explains, a young man named Jordan Gans was the first to receive an experimental treatment for cystine disease, a genetic disease that was slowly killing him. It affects the kidneys in particular, and this is manifested by an excess of cysteine, an amino acid, in the cells of some organs – among them also the liver, pancreas, brain, eyes and most muscles. On average, the life expectancy of a person with this disease is twenty-eight and a half years.

The treatment in question has proven stressful for this 20-year-old Canadian. It involved extracting stem cells from bone marrow for in vitro modification. After undergoing chemotherapy aimed at eliminating harmful cells from his body, Jordan Gans was able to receive the modified stem cells. One of the consequences of chemotherapy for this patient was the development of mouth sores so painful that he could no longer eat, but also the loss of his pale blond hair.

Alberta’s home country, western Canada, didn’t have much hope. However, under the influence of the treatment, he gradually began to feel better, and his hair began to grow again. It was there, to great astonishment, that he was able to see that his new poetry had nothing to do with the old: it was now “Dark, almost black”, says the Atlantic. That was two and a half years ago. Since then, the color has evolved further, gradually leaning towards darker blond. “One day my girlfriend told me she felt like she was dating someone else”says the person concerned.

“It’s so amazing”, commented Stephanie Cherky, a stem cell specialist who conducted the trial at the University of California, San Diego. Surprising but not very superficial, because the scientists eventually realized that the darkening of a patient’s hair may have been an indication that the treatment was working well.

Only in white people

It turns out that many people with cystinosis tend to be much paler than other members of their family. Many of them have blond hair and very smooth skin. However, a study in mice showed that the gene responsible for this disease also plays a role in the production of certain types of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin and hair color.

Jordan Gans isn’t the only patient whose hair has darkened: Of five individuals who followed the same treatment, four (all white) saw their hair darker. The fifth is currently waiting for his hair to grow back.

The discovery does not extend to non-Caucasians, says The Atlantic. For example, in black-skinned patients, there is no difference in color (hair or skin) compared to the rest of the family. “There may not be a strict correlation between disease severity and pigmentation”admits Robert Baluti, Inserm’s melanin specialist.

Hair modification is, of course, anecdotal in the face of the real good news: it now appears that cystinosis can be reversed, even if the damage it caused is irreversible. Jordan Gans will have to undergo a kidney transplant soon. But those with the disease in the future have a real chance of a full recovery, if caught early enough. It is very likely that the treatment will also change the color of the hair.

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