It’s known as serendipity: A study team may have discovered how to genetically change hair color while looking for a treatment for a rare ailment. Possibly not the most significant discovery, but one that will surely be researched and used in the relatively near future.
A young man named Jordan Janz was the first to receive an experimental treatment for cystinosis, a genetic condition that was slowly killing him, in October 2019, according to The Atlantic. This specifically affects the kidneys and is characterized by an overabundance of the amino acid cystine in the cells of some organs, including the liver, pancreas, brain, eyes, and the majority of the muscles. A person with this illness has a twenty-eight and a half year life expectancy on average.
This 20-year-old Canadian found the procedure to be draining. It involved taking stem cells out of his bone marrow and altering them in a lab. Jordan Janz was able to receive the modified stem cells after receiving chemotherapy meant to rid his body of dangerous cells. For this patient, side effects of chemotherapy included the onset of mouth sores that were so painful he could no longer eat, as well as the loss of his light blond hair.
The Alberta native from western Canada had little hope, but after receiving therapy, he gradually started to feel better and his hair started to grow back. To his great surprise, he was able to notice there that his new hair was completely different from the old one; it was now “dark, almost black,” according to The Atlantic. Two and a half years have passed since that time, and the color has continued to change, gradually leaning towards the dark blond.
Stephanie Cherqui, a stem cell expert at the University of California, San Diego, says the results are “quite surprising.” The scientists eventually recognized that the patient’s hair darkening was likely a sign that the medication was effective, so the surprise wasn’t that superficial after all.
Only among white folks
It turns out that many cystinosis sufferers tend to be paler than other family members. Many have an exceptionally light complexion and blonde hair. However, a study done on mice revealed that the gene causing this illness also contributes to the formation of specific forms of melanin, the pigment that gives skin and hair their colors.
Out of five people who received the identical treatment, four (all of them white) saw a darkening of their hair, not just Jordan Janz. The fifth is presently awaiting the regrowth of his hair.
According to The Atlantic, this discovery does not apply to non-Caucasians. For instance, there is no noticeable variation in skin or hair color between black patients and the rest of the family. Robert Ballotti, a melanin expert at Inserm, acknowledges that there may not be a direct association between illness severity and pigmentation.
The truly good news is that cystinosis now appears to be reversible, even though the harm it has inflicted is irreversible. Hair modification is obviously rather anecdotal in comparison. Jordan Janz must receive a kidney transplant soon.
Future sufferers, however, stand a good chance of making a full recovery provided they are identified early enough. Additionally, it is highly likely that the treatment will alter the color of their hair incidentally.