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Researchers Develop Hair Farm for Growing Human Follicles

balding middle aged manScience appears to be moving closer to a future in which surgeons, such as Dr. Bernard Arocha of Arocha Hair Restoration, have unlimited hair follicles for hair transplants. A study published in Nature Communications, “Tissue engineering of human hair follicles using a biomimetic developmental approach,” reports on major advances toward growing human hair follicles from hair follicle stem cells.

The study comes from a research team led by Dr. Angela Christiano of Columbia University Medical Center in New York. We’ve posted about her previously in the story, “Will Laboratory Discovery Lead to Better Treatments for Baldness?”

While a great deal of additional work is necessary, the implications of these latest advances are enormous. Instead of being limited to the donor follicles on the back of each patient’s scalp, hair restoration surgeons could grow limitless follicles in the lab.

Artistic Hair Restoration

Anyone who has visited Dr. Arocha’s office knows he appreciates fine art. He has served on the boards of the Contemporary Art Museum, the Latin American Subcommittee of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Core Committee at the Glassell School of Art. The walls of Arocha Hair Restoration feature wonderful modern paintings that demand a close inspection.

What would artists such as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock have accomplished with limited paint? They probably still would have created masterpieces, but thankfully their paint was always plentiful.

Dr. Arocha describes his work as “Artistic Hair Restoration,” using hair the same way artists use paint. We recommend reviewing a great video, “Fundamentals of Artistic Hair Restoration,” in which Dr. Arocha describes his artistic process to achieve natural and undetectable results.

One of the greatest challenges Dr. Arocha and some of his patients encounter is that the supply of donor hair follicles can be limited. Those who experience the greatest hair loss have the least amount of donor follicles.

This latest study from Dr. Christiano and her research team suggests lab-grown hair follicles could remove those limitations.

Hair Farm

Dr. Christiano’s big advance is the development of what she has termed a “hair farm.” Basically, they’ve developed easily reproducible three-dimensional laboratory environments that closely resemble how human hair follicle stem cells exist within the skin. Her team did this through the use of 3D printers. They needed to create plastic molds with long, thin extensions just half a millimeter wide, which was previously impossible.

They engineered human skin to grow around the mold and placed hair follicle stem cells from human volunteers into the deep wells.  They topped each of these with cells that produce keratin, which is the fibrous protein forming the key structural material making up hair. The researchers then fed the cells a cocktail of growth factors spiked with ingredients, including JAK inhibitors.

After three weeks, human hair follicles appeared and hair started sprouting just like corn stalks!

A Major Advance in Hair Growth

Until now, efforts to grow human hair follicles in the lab have been unsuccessful. Researchers have been able to start hair follicle development in the lab and then grow hair after being transplanted into skin, but this is the first time that human hair follicles have been entirely generated in a dish. We’ve reported on several successful experiments involving lab-grown mouse hair follicles, but for unknown reasons human hair seems have been resistant to growing in a lab environment.

By paying special attention to the environment in which hair follicle stem cells are ‘farmed,’ Dr. Christiano’s team appears to have fooled the cells into thinking they are coming to life in human skin.

On behalf of the entire hair restoration community, we at Arocha Hair Restoration pass along our heartfelt congratulations to Dr. Christiano and her team, which includes Hasan Erbil Abaci, Abigail Coffman, Yanne Doucet, James Chen, Joanna Jacków, Etienne Wang, Zongyou Guo, Jung U. Shin and Colin A. Jahoda.

We also want to be sure to recognize the sources of funding for the research, including grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and New York State Stem Cell Science. Fellowships from Ines Mandl Research Foundation and CUIMC Precision Medicine Research were also involved.