Elaine Fuchs is fascinated by skin and hair—two very distinct structures that develop from the same skin stem cell. By unraveling the biology of skin stem cells, she hopes to answer a question that has intrigued her for more than two…
Elaine Fuchs is fascinated by skin and hair—two very distinct structures that develop from the same skin stem cell. By unraveling the biology of skin stem cells, she hopes to answer a question that has intrigued her for more than two decades: How does a skin stem cell decide to become skin or hair? Understanding skin stem cells' normal behavior is also helping Fuchs learn what happens when their growth goes awry. Her studies have already uncovered the genetic basis of blistering skin diseases and clues to the way skin cancers and inflammatory skin disorders develop. Her research may also hold clues for deciphering the extraordinary characteristics of stem cells that enable them to develop into distinct tissues and organs. "While there is much promise for stem cells in revolutionizing medicine, we must first learn more about stem cells before we can know whether this might be possible," she contends. Unlike most other adult stem cells, skin stem cells can be easily grown in the laboratory. Studies by Fuchs have shown that multiple signaling pathways, including the Wnt and BMP pathways, influence how stem cells develop into mature hair follicles. Together, positive Wnt signals and antagonistic BMP signals lead to activation of transcription factors, which induce the formation of a hair follicle bud. In the absence of these signals, stem cells develop into skin epidermis. This line of research may eventually lead to new ways to restore or inhibit hair growth. By exploring how the stem cell reservoir (niche) forms and how stem cells are activated to proliferate and differentiate, Fuchs' work is having an impact on understanding skin and hair regeneration. Her recent work delineating the differences between normal stem cells and cancer-causing stem cells (cancer stem cells) has begun to shed light on how defective stem cells can cause cancers. Fuchs believes strongly that research scientists do not operate in a vacuum but rather have an "obligation to a larger community of scientists, government, and the public," she said. "I feel that the best way I can teach and mentor is to lead by example—through a love and enthusiasm for my science, a dedication to research and an awareness of the medical and ethical implications involved, and by setting up the right environment conducive to learning."