When it comes to restoring hair in balding areas on the scalp, patients have often turned to medications such as minoxidil and finasteride as well as surgical solutions such as a hair transplant. As research and testing continues for new and improved hair transplant methods, a new study shows an interesting development in the fight against pattern hair loss in both male and female patients. 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, details a new way to grow human hair in a dish. This medical discovery might allow more people to have a hair transplant while also utilizing 3D printing technology in the hair restoration process.
The study discussed above was focused on the use of stem cells for hair growth. The team of researchers developed a method to grow human hair in a dish. Researchers say this is the first time that human hair follicles have been completely generated in a dish while also skipping the previously needed step for implantation into the skin.
Scientists in the past were able to grow rat or mouse hairs in labs. These scientists would culture cells that came from the base of existing follicles. This process has not been possible with human cells in the past because they have been resistant to the same process. In order to lessen the resistance of human hair cells to this process, Christiano has been working to create conditions that mimic the 3D environment that human hair cells normally inhabit.
During the first attempt to grow human hair in a dish, the lab research team tried to create little cell spheres located inside hanging drops of liquid. However, the results were inconsistent after the spheres were implanted in the mice. Some of the cells created new hair while the cells from other people did not succeed in creating new hair.
In the new study, Christiano’s team explained how they utilized 3D printers in order to create a more natural microenvironment that lent itself to the growth of hair follicles. The research staff used 3D printing to create plastic molds that had long, thin extensions that were only half a millimeter wide in size. Erbil Abaci, PhD, and the first author of this study, said “Previous fabrication techniques have been unable to create such thin projections so this work was greatly facilitated by innovations in 3D printing technology.”
After the human skin was engineered to grow around the mold, hair follicle cells that were taken from human volunteers were placed inside the deep wells. Once they were put in place, they were then topped by cells that produce keratin. The cells were then “fed” a cocktail containing growth factors spiked with ingredients including JAK inhibitors that were determined to stimulate hair growth. After a period of monitoring the cells for three weeks, human hair follicles appeared and began to create hair.
Although the methods discussed above need further research before being used on a regular basis, this method of creating engineered human hair follicles is viewed as a possible method of creating an unlimited supply of new hair follicles including hair follicles for patients looking to have robotic hair restoration surgery. The idea of having an unlimited supply of hair follicles is welcomed because a hair transplant requires the transfer of thousands of hair follicles from the donor area on the body of the patient to the balding area on the scalp.
When asked what can be determined from the study when it comes to hair transplants and their future performance, 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.”
Besides the benefits discussed above, the engineered hair follicles have the possibility to be used by the pharmaceutical industry to help screen for new hair growth drugs. The screening process for new hair drugs has been slowed down in the past few years due to an inability to grow human hair follicles in a lab dish. The only two medications that have been FDA-approved for the treatment of pattern hair loss, finasteride and minoxidil, were first investigated as possible treatments for other conditions. While checking them for use in treating other conditions, it was discovered that finasteride and minoxidil were suitable for patients to use when combating hair loss.
The research team is still working to see if the cultured hair farms will open up. If they do open up, this will greatly increase their ability to identify new pathways that influence hair growth. These 3D molds might make it easier to test new hair loss cures in the future. However, it could be many years before stem cell-derived hair follicles are readily available for patients to use as a hair loss treatment. The study was not conducted on human patients and this means the hair transplantation process has to be optimized for humans before any type of clinical trials can begin.