A recent study shows interesting developments in the battle to combat pattern hair loss in both men and women. The study, conducted by a research team led by Angela Christiano, PhD, the Richard & Mildred Rhodebeck Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, showed a way to grow human hair in a dish. This discovery could allow more people to undergo hair restoration surgery while also bringing 3D printing technology into the hair restoration process.
3D Printing and Hair Loss
The study was aimed at the use of stem cells for hair growth. The team of researchers created a way to grow human hair in a dish and it is the first time human hair follicles have been completely generated in a dish while skipping the step that was previously needed for implantation into the skin.
In the past, scientists have been able to grow mouse or rat hairs in labs by culturing cells that are taken from the base of existing follicles. However, human cells have been resistant to this same process. In order to lessen the resistance of human hair cells, Christiano has been working to create conditions that will mimic the 3D environment that hair cells of humans normally inhabit. During the first attempt, the lab first tried to create little spheres of cells that were located inside hanging drops of liquid. Unfortunately, once the spheres were implanted in mice, the results were unpredictable and inconsistent. The cells from some people created new hair while the cells from other people did not create new hair.
As explained in the new study, Christiano’s team tried to utilize the unique capability of 3D printers in order to create a more natural microenvironment for hair follicle growth. The staff of researchers used 3D printing to create plastic molds with long, thin extensions that were only half a millimeter wide. According to Erbil Abaci, PhD, first author of this study, “Previous fabrication techniques have been unable to create such thin projections so this work was greatly facilitated by innovations in 3D printing technology.”
Once the human skin was engineered to grow around the mold, hair follicle cells taken from human volunteers were placed inside the deep wells and they were topped by cells that produce keratin. The cells were “fed” a cocktail of growth factors that were spiked with ingredients such as JAK inhibitors that have been found to stimulate hair growth. After three weeks, human hair follicles appeared and started creating hair.
Is this a New Unlimited Source of Hair Follicles
Although the methods described above need to be further researched and optimized, this method of creating engineered human hair follicles might be a way to generate an unlimited source of new hair follicles for patients that want to undergo robotic hair restoration surgery. In general, hair restoration surgery requires the transfer of thousands of hair follicles from the donor area on the back of the scalp to the front and top of the head.
When asked what the study shows for the future of hair transplants, Christiano said “What we’ve shown is that we can basically create a hair farm: a grid of hairs that are patterned correctly and engineered so they can be transplanted back into that same patient’s scalp. That expands the availability of hair restoration to all patients—including the 30-million women in the United States who experience hair thinning and young men whose hairlines are still receding. Hair restoration surgery would no longer be limited by the number of donor hairs.”
In addition to the benefits listed above, the engineered follicles might be able to be used by the pharmaceutical industry to screen for new hair growth drugs. In the past few years, the screening process for new hair drugs has been slowed by an inability to grow human hair follicles in a lab dish. No new drugs have been found through a screening process and the only two medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of pattern hair loss, finasteride and minoxidil, were initially investigated as treatments for other conditions. It was only during the investigation process for other conditions that finasteride and minoxidil were discovered to be suitable for use in combating hair loss.
3D Printing and the Future of Hair Loss
The research team is working to discover if the cultured hair farms will open up and greatly increase the ability to perform high throughput drug screens to discover and identify new pathways that influence hair growth.
Even though the 3D molds could make it much easier to test new hair products, as well as new hair loss cures, it might be several years before stem cell-derived hair follicles are readily available to be used as hair loss treatments on a regular basis. The fact that the study was not conducted on humans means the transplantation process must first be optimized for humans before any sort of lengthy clinical trials can begin.