The concept of 3D printing is now firmly established and since its invention in 1979 has progressed rapidly into mainstream areas such as engineering, manufacturing, science and medicine. Though most are aware of the term few know exactly where it came from and its prospects for changing the world as we know it. 3D printed hair may even provide another treatment for baldness and hair loss.
So what is 3D printing, and how can it be used to revolutionise hair loss treatment?
Also known as additive manufacturing, the 3D printing technique involves using a computer to create a layered three dimensional object. Although a patent for the process was applied for in 1979, the first 3D printer was produced by American Chuck Hull in 1983. Hull spent many hours alone in his lab experimenting with various materials until one night he discovered that liquefied photopolymers – acrylic based materials – became solid under ultraviolet light.
This basic method is unchanged to this day but has become ever more refined in order to accurately reproduce a number of objects — from firearms to model trains to replacement human joints and hair.
The greatest advancements in 3D printing have undoubtedly been in medical fields. In hospitals and laboratories around the world, 3D printing has been used to print prosthetic implants for reconstructive surgery . As one leading surgeon said, “If I didn’t have 3D printer technology, I wouldn’t be able to do my work.” 
So can we use this amazing technology to create hair follicles? L’Oreal believes so. They’ve joined forces with French biotech company, Poietis, to develop a form of laser printing for cell-based objects .
Although L’Oreal has used 3D printed skin in product research, no-one has yet been able to produce hair follicles this way. Adaptation of the process will take at least three years. Even then, any follicles produced are likely to be used to test new products.
While Poeitis and L’Oreal haven’t released any significant results stemming from their research yet, other research appears promising. Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center have used 3D printing techniques to generate human hair follicles in less than 3 weeks .
This breakthrough could be game-changing for hair loss patients. Using 3D printed hair follicles would mean that patients with more advanced hair loss and even alopecia totalis may be able to undergo hair transplants, since the technology relies less on extracting existing hair follicles. It also paves the way for less intrusive surgeries. The follicles can be grown outside the skin, then transplanted into the affected areas.
The potential for 3D printing in medical and surgical environments is huge — but the procedures involved are complex . Producing viable pieces of organic tissue for growing hair follicles is a lengthy process.
To do this, Poeitis created a digital map of the biological structure which can then instruct the printer to lay down tiny droplets of ‘biological ink.’ A laser is then used to create 10,000 micro-droplets of bio-ink per second to create the organic tissue.
The Columbia University team took a different approach. Instead of growing the hair itself, they used 3D printing to replicate the perfect growth environment for human hair. They placed hair follicles within this environment, and within 3 weeks, the follicles began to produce hair. Lead researcher Angela Christiano suggests this has the potential to create a “kind of hair farm — a network of hair that is properly designed and shaped so that it can be transplanted into the scalp of the same patient.”
As a result, patients who have previously been ineligible for hair transplants, due to excessive hair loss or overharvesting in previous transplant procedures, may become eligible for a procedure.
Refining this process is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, lab-based studies don’t always translate to real-life success. That means there’s still a long way to go before this technology will be widely available. But the results so far are promising, and suggest we may be able to treat more patients than ever before.
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