Scientists 3D-print hair follicles in lab-grown skin

3D bioprinting of hair follicles within skin.Credit: Science Advances (2023).

Imagine a world where skin grafts can grow hair or where we can test drugs and cosmetics more effectively.

This might soon become a reality thanks to a breakthrough by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For the first time, they’ve managed to 3D-print hair follicles right into lab-cultured human skin.

This exciting development, featured in the journal Science Advances, opens new doors in regenerative medicine and drug testing.

So, what does this all mean? Let’s break it down.

The team, led by Dr. Pankaj Karande, an associate professor at Rensselaer, successfully created hair follicles using a high-tech 3D printing process.

This achievement is crucial because hair follicles are more than just for hair growth; they play a vital role in skin health. They help regulate body temperature through sweat and aid in skin healing thanks to the stem cells they contain.

Until now, growing hair in lab-cultured skin was a significant challenge.

Studies suggested that if skin cells were grown in a three-dimensional environment, they might form new hair follicles. Building on this idea, the Rensselaer team used a precise and repeatable 3D-bioprinting method to make this a reality.

Creating skin with hair is not just about looks. It’s important for testing how skin reacts to various products.

Currently, most testing is done on simple engineered skin tissues that don’t have hair follicles. Adding hair follicles makes these tests more realistic and informative.

Dr. Carolina Catarino, the study’s first author, highlights the importance of this advancement. She notes that more complex skin models, including hair follicles, can give us better insights into how skin interacts with products like cosmetics and medicines.

This innovation is part of a series of pioneering skin tissue engineering projects at Rensselaer. The team has already made significant strides by printing skin with working blood vessels.

This latest research adds another layer of complexity and realism to the engineered skin.

But how did they do it? It all starts in the lab, where skin and follicle cells are grown until there are enough cells for printing.

Then, these cells are mixed with proteins and other materials to create a special “bio-ink.” Using a fine needle, the 3D printer carefully deposits this ink, building the skin layer by layer and creating pathways for the hair cells.

Over time, the skin cells move towards these pathways, forming structures similar to real hair follicles.

Currently, these lab-grown skin tissues last about two to three weeks, which isn’t long enough for full hair growth. The next goal for the researchers is to extend this lifespan, allowing the hair follicles to mature more and potentially be used for advanced drug testing and skin grafts.

This work is a shining example of how combining engineering with life sciences can lead to innovations that significantly impact human health.

The potential applications of this technology are vast, from creating better skin grafts for burn victims to improving the safety and effectiveness of topical drugs and cosmetics. The future looks bright, and it might just have more hair in it!