Given the amount of wear and tear to which it is subjected daily, the skin has a phenomenal ability to replenish itself. Scattered in it are small reservoirs of stem cells, nested within supportive micro-environments called niches, which maintain a tight control over this repair process. Too many tissues could cause problems like cancer, while too little could accelerate aging.
Until now, scientists weren't sure if the stem cells themselves could instruct other stem cells to form a new skin by reshaping their niche. But new scientific research, driven by Elaine FuchsRebecca C. Lancefield's professor indicates that stem cells can actually affect tissue regeneration. The study identifies a molecular coordination tool used by stem cells to signal through niches.
Researchers have also discovered a new component of the niche: a specialized type of vessel called lymphatic capillaries, which carry immune cells and drain excess fluids and toxins from tissues. These capillaries form an intimate network around the stem cell niche within each hair follicle, the study demonstrated, thus interconnecting all its niches.
"By transforming the skin completely transparently," says post-doctoral colleague Shiri Gur-Cohen, "we were able to reveal the complex architecture of this pipe network."
Hair follicle stem cells control the behavior of lymphatic capillaries by secreting molecules that act as an on-off drainage switch, scientists have discovered, allowing them to control the composition of fluids and cells in the surrounding room and eventually synchronize regeneration through the fabric.
"The involvement of the lymphatic system in this process is a new concept," says Fuchs, "and could potentially provide new therapeutic targets for lymph-linked conditions such as wound healing and hair loss."
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