It is an industry that is expanding thanks to more people able to pay to look after their hair while our lifestyles make it more likely we will lose it.
It affects both men and women, but men are most at risk. The American Hair Loss Association says that by age 35 over two-thirds of males will have experienced appreciable hair loss.
Stress, diet and environmental factors play a big part and so while many of the solutions offered can have an effect, the nature of the damage is likely to see the attempted solutions fail. For all the research and spending to date, no fix has been found, but we now know more about why it falls out and how potentially to get it back than ever before.
The most common approach for treating hair loss has been to try to slow it down. Depending on the reason for hair loss, there are varying degrees of success. Medication like Finasteride can stop hair loss in some users, but it needs to be taken constantly.
There a many reasons we lose our hair, both men and women, a big part is just ageing but there are many other factors. The most obvious is that the cells that grow and colour the hair begin to die off and are not replaced. In men that can be amplified with hormone changes that result in more facial hair, but less on your head.
Hair falling out is not itself a sign of trouble though as each hair-growing unit of cells has a growing phase, a dormant phase and then a shedding phase. Hair loss is normal but for most of our lives, it includes replacement. Hair cells all have different growth cycles so you typically don't lose hair at the same time and you have so much hair you hardly notice. You are likely to have about 100 000 hairs on your head. Blondes slightly more, redheads slightly less.
While the drug approach has been used for a long time and can give good results for some, it is not a sure-fire fix.
The next approach is to move healthy hair cells to parts of the scalp that are no longer growing, typically from the back or sides of your scalp. Sometimes even using hair from elsewhere on the body. It too has mixed results but has improved over time with better success rates and more natural final effects. It is very expensive thanks to being very specialised and time-consuming.
The third option is to create an artificial scalp which has real but not living hair inserted into it. A variety of substances and new adhesives can make for very convincing solutions with the hair able to be treated just like your own.
It is hoped new techniques may provide additional alternatives for those that could not benefit from the options already mentioned.
There are constant improvements in the understanding of the ways cells send and receive messages about what to do. Understanding what and how certain signals are sent to hair cells may extend their lives and get stem cells (the undifferentiated cells) to become hair and pigment cells.
Besides the chemical signalling, it also requires a certain density of cells to achieve this. Attempts to grow hair follicles in a lab were not very successful thanks to the inability to pack enough of the stem cells in the correct concentration. An improved 3D print scaffold which is tiny make be the key.
Printing tiny things
A quick sidebar on creating very small things. Scientists created a “movie” which was created at an atomic level in 2013. They managed to create a 90-second film by moving atoms frame by frame to create an animated boy and his atom.
South African Jonty Hurwitz in 2014 used Multiphoton Lithography to craft the world smallest crafted objects. Consider the eye of a needle, the printed object of a female model in a ballet pose is small enough to not only fit in the eye of the needle, but it also looks like the model is standing on a stage because space is so much bigger than the model.
Beyond models it is also possible to build tiny machines, you no doubt have one in your phone, the sensor that helps you determine the direction you are pointing is one and in your car, a tiny printed machine is the trigger to inflate your airbags.
Thanks to those innovations, 3D printing is able to create the scaffolding to support cells in a way that replicates their placement in the scalp.
Now those hair cells can be grown to add back to your head once they have grown enough, add the improved cell signalling techniques, the medications to manage and our understanding of the hormone system, and the machines to re-insert the follicles back into your scalp while reducing the risk of scarring and infection.
If you don’t have any hair issues you might think the efforts is simply one of vanity, hardly the stuff to drive real scientific progress. Not only does having hair make a real difference in how you feel, but the efforts in this field also assist with progress in others.
3D printing heart tissue is the stuff of movies, but scientists hoping to one day print new organs for those that need them are busy creating heart patches to heal damaged hearts. The process creates an ‘ink’ that both contain stem cells and the scaffolding substances which are ‘printed’ to replicate human heart tissue. In time the stem cells fill the structure with the heart cells and others that are needed to repair the damage.
How wonderful that an artist’s attempt to create a tiny sculpture can blend with work to prevent hair loss and combine with work to create new organs to solve not only the specific challenges they each face, but accelerate the time to find solutions to a range of other related challenges.
The Star Trek replicator first appeared in the ’80s. It is still just a science fiction story to imagine a machine that can create anything it has a recipe to construct, but rather than being a crazy notion, thanks to printing innovations, it is now just a really difficult challenge.