TMCnet Feature
August 14, 2020

3D Printing and stem cells have the potential to make baldness a distant nightmare

Hair loss has been a constant issue for people all over the world. Reasons for this can be many, including natural causes or side effects of medical treatment. And while some patients that undergo severe medical treatment such as chemotherapy eventually get their hair back, for individuals who lose their hair due to natural causes, the process is, unfortunately, not reversible.

For people who experience hair loss, the effects can be detrimental to their self-image and quality of life for men and women alike. This is why many recur to treatments that promise to help natural hair grow back. However, these treatments can often be unsuccessful, which leaves one single option for patients – hair transplant.

The hair transplant procedure involves transplanting hair follicles from one part of the patient’s body to another, which has proven very effective for many people. Current hair transplant interventions have made the life easier and happier for many individuals, including celebrities, helping them regain their self-esteem.

Many people fear, however, that a hair transplant may look unnatural and could make their issue even more visible. But now, hair treatment and transplants have become very sophisticated and use state-of-the-art technology to even clone individual hair and ensure a natural look.

Research for improved hair loss treatment continues

For years, researchers and experts have focused on using stem cells to grow natural human hair, but up until now, experiments were conducted using mouse skin as the base where stem cells are planted.

At first glance, experts believed that, out of all parts of the body that could be created in a lab, hair should have been one of the simplest. Unlike the liver or lungs, hair does not have an active function. It does not have to pump blood or filter fluids. It is nothing but a strand of protein filaments wrapped around each other, so all it needs to do is sit on the scalp without falling and grow.

Upon further research, however, it was revealed that hair is much more complex than it was initially expected to be. For one single strand of hair to be produced, the body needs thousands of stem cells, called dermal papillae, to sit at the base of each hair follicle. Given the fact that the human scalp contains anywhere around 100,000 hair follicles, the process can be quite difficult to replicate.

When a person starts losing hair, it happens because dermal papillae disappear over time, causing the hair follicle to go dormant. In fact, a bald person’s scalp continues to have hair on it, but the strands become very thin and strange-looking, as the hair follicles go dormant and lose almost all of their dermal papillae.

Transplanting hair follicles from one part of the body to another, or from a donor, is currently one of the most popular options for hair transplant, and it is effective oftentimes. But researchers are working on a new, revolutionary method to make hair transplant less of a hassle for both patients and doctors.

Stem cell therapy has groundbreaking potential, but issues are still present

The best option to ensure a natural-looking hairline remains, to this day, generating new hair. Cell therapy, which has become a promising area of medicine, could be the solution everyone has been searching for.

Cell therapy revolves around the creation of bodily structures, with therapies derived from the patient’s own stem cells, and could possess far fewer downfalls than any form of transplant. Through this form of therapy, immune cells can be used to attack tumors, nerve cells can repair spinal-cord injuries, pancreatic cells can help people suffering from type 1 diabetes, and new hair follicles can cover hairless skin areas.

Because stem cells are extracted from the patient’s body, there are minimal risks for the transplant to be rejected by the immune system, which is the main cause of failed transplant procedures.

The ultimate goal for stem cell therapy is to be able to create “hair farms”, which could solve the hair loss issue many are confronted with. Last year, a San Diego-based stem cell start-up, which works to clone hair follicles, recounted their first successful transplant of human hair follicles into mice.

However, there are some flaws that need to be corrected before this could become a viable treatment option. The main problem is this solution does not last long, as cloned hair cells stop producing hair in time.

At first, no one could understand why, but now they have an answer. When they are cultures, cells seem to spread out, making the follicular culture essentially melt away. If researchers could manage to preserve the cells together and maintain their teardrop shape, they will continue to send signals to each other and grow into resistant hair follicles. This is mandatory if you want to keep hair growing in the same direction and maintain a natural aspect of the hairline.

3D printing could be the missing link researchers have been looking for

To avoid cells losing their shape, one solution that scientists propose is the development of a synthetic scaffold that could be implanted around the cloned follicle to support and guide the growth of the hair.

Another solution, which can prove to be even more effective than the scaffolding one was presented by Angela Christiano, genetics and dermatology professor at Columbia University. Her team of researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York used 3D printing to create a mold that can hold the follicle and derma papillae in place until they grow into hair.

Though this groundbreaking technique, they can develop a microenvironment similar to the natural environment of human hair follicles, something that was nearly impossible to reproduce before 3D printing technology was available.

While the process is still far from being perfect, the potential is astonishing. In just three weeks, the cells, which have been topped with keratin-producing cells and stimulate with various growth factors, generated human hair follicles that were now able to start growing hair.

Research to perfect this groundbreaking therapy is still ongoing, but we might soon witness a revolutionary way to make hair loss less of an issue.

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