This article originally appeared on Time.com.
Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center accidentally stumbled upon this explanation for baldness and graying hairs—at least in mouse models—while studying a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on nerves, according to a press release from the center.
They found that a protein called KROX20 switches on skin cells that become a hair shaft, which then causes cells to produce another protein called stem cell factor. In mice, these two proteins turned out to be important for baldness and graying. When researchers deleted the cells that produce KROX20, mice stopped growing hair and eventually went bald; when they deleted the SCF gene, the animals’ hair turned white.
“Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumors form, we ended up learning why hair turns gray and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair,” said lead researcher Dr. Lu Le, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in a statement.
More research is needed to understand if the process works similarly in humans, and Le and his colleagues plan to start studying it in people. “With this knowledge, we hope in the future to create a topical compound or to safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems,” he said.