A newly discovered cellular channel that regulates skin and hair growth could lead to breakthroughs in small-molecule drugs for a variety of skin conditions, as well as thinning or unwanted hair.

The new research from the Children’s Hospital Boston has capitalised on the nature of skin and hair folicles, which are constantly renewed in the body and maintained by specialised stem cells.

The hospital study found that TRPV3, a protein found mainly in skin, ‘supercharges’ the TGF-alpha / EGFR pathway, which helps regulate the growth and specialisation of cells in the epidermis.

In tests on mice, a lack of TRPV3 resulted in mice with a thinner outer skin layer with a dry, scaly texture, and appeared to be a less intact, more permeable barrier.

Scientists conclude that the ion channel TRPV3 is activated by EGFR, causing an influx of calcium that triggers many signalling pathways inside the cell, including one that stimulates release of TGF-alpha.

Study leader David Clapham said that these findings mean that drugs that stimulate TRPV3 activity may offer a new approach to treating multiple skin conditions, such as burns, eczema, psoriasis, itching, fungal infections and oral mucositis.

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“It might also be possible to develop cosmetic treatments that make the skin more firm, pliable and youthful. If you activate TRPV3, you might get thicker skin,” Clapham said.