Scientists looking for a cure for skin cancer have stumbled on something else: the reason why hair turns gray. It turns out that one of the most-common signs of aging occurs because...

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Scientists looking for a cure for skin cancer have stumbled on something else: the reason why hair turns gray.

It turns out that one of the most-common signs of aging occurs because of the death of stem cells that spawn the pigment-manufacturing cells called melanocytes, the scientists said. As the supply of new pigment is cut off, hair turns gray.

The discovery will not be the death knell for the hair-dye industry.

“Preventing the graying of hair is not our goal,” said David Fisher, a scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Our goal is to prevent or treat melanoma, and to the extent this research is revealing the life cycles of melanocytes, which are the cells that become cancerous in melanoma, we would love to identify a signal that would make a melanoma cell stop growing.”

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Ironically, what the researchers hope to do is find drugs that mimic what happens in the aging process. Clues about why the stem cells die, in other words, are useful precisely because they can help scientists find ways to kill melanocytes that proliferate to form tumors.

“Eventually, we hope to tap into this death pathway, thereby using drugs to mimic the aging process, to successfully treat melanoma,” Fisher said in a statement.

The research was conducted with scientists at Children’s Hospital in Boston. The report was published last week in Science.