Presently, it is possible to grow hair of mouse or rats in an artificial setting by extracting cells taken from the base of the animal’s follicles. However, the method is not applicable to human because of the resistance coming from our hair cells. A group of researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center had attempted to overcome the challenge by recreating the environment which human hair cells normally reside, via 3D printing. 

3D printed hair follicles 

The research team printed circular plastic molds, with many tiny and sleek protruding about half a millimeter wide on its surface, as well as artificial skin constructs, to mimic the natural environment of hair follicle growth. The skin constructs will then be put within a transwell (i.e., a membrane used for cell cultures) before the mold is inserted on the top. Collagen gel will be applied and folded around this artificial follicle before the mold is being removed. 

Human dermal papilla cells (DPCs) will now be planted onto this construct and be layered over by other different cells. Within three weeks, researchers are able to observe some forms of cell differentiation. Before 3D printing, the team was unable to produce such fine and think fabrications. They had tried to create little bubbles of cells within drops of liquid which yielded mixed results: not every cell grows into new hair, after they were planted onto animals. 

For patients in need of hair restoration or skin replacement 

Earlier, the research team had published their preliminary success on Nature, under the paper entitled, “Tissue engineering of human hair follicles using a biomimetic development approach”. Researchers admit that while the technique still has room for optimization, it bears a huge potential for patients in need of hair restoration or skin replacement. 

Regardless of gender, a typical hair restoration surgery requires up to 4,400 hair per patient, whereas the research team is able to “farm” over 5000 hair follicles per human skin construct. “Current hair restoration techniques rely on transferring one hair from one site of the scalp to another. With our approach, which is based on the expansion of donor cells in the lab, it will be possible in the future to graft nearly 2000 engineered hair follicles from one donor hair follicle,” said Erbil Abaci, one of the researchers leading this project. 

At the moment, the team will follow up by creating pigmented hair follicles and to adjust various factors and molecules to target different stages of hair follicle growth.  

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.