L’Oreal Wants To Print Hair Follicles And Stick Them On Your Head
First it will conquer the lab, then your head
Last week, cosmetics giant L’Oreal announced a partnership with France-based bioprinting startup Poietis. Together, the two hope to print synthetic hair follicles that can first conquer the lab, then your head.
All you need to bioprint a hair follicle is bioink, a laser, and some time. The laser forces tiny drops of bioink made up of living cells in very specific positions on a substrate, then layers it to create a structure. Over the next few weeks, the cells mature into hair follicle cells, becoming viable outside a petri dish (the company calls its process “4D bioprinting” — this maturation time is the fourth dimension).
This process isn’t as straightforward as it may seem; several organizations have tried to bioprint hair follicles and failed, according to a press video from L’Oreal. Hair follicles contain 15 different types of cells that must cyclically grow new hair, and the average human head has about 150,000 of them.
Most other types of bioprinting push inks through a nozzle instead of using lasers. Poietis claims its technology is different because it can precisely control the physical properties of its bioink in order to print its products in very high resolution (depositing the bioink on a scale of micrometers), depositing 10,000 drops per second without killing the cells. It does this with a laser, which reflects off a mirror and through a lens, then passes through a ribbon coated with bioink, depositing the cells in the bioink into specific positions on the culture plate below. In partnerships with other companies, Poietis is looking to use its technique to create skin that could be used for pharmaceutical testing or as grafts for burn victims.
Printing a hair follicle could be a big deal for a company like L’Oreal. The most immediate use would be to test new products, making sure they work and are safe for humans. That could be a game changer for a company that only tests its products on tissue samples, not on animals.
Testing on functional hair follicles might also mean that researchers will be able to develop a product that can effectively reduce hair loss. “If we achieve to bioprint a hair follicle, we will enhance our knowledge of hair biology and will perhaps solve the mysteries of hair growth, hair greying, or hair loss,” Patricia Pineau, the head of scientific communications at L’Oreal, told Vocativ via email. “Bioprinted hair will then become a way to identify new active molecules for our products.”
The next step would be to print hair follicles with skin around them; the ultimate goal would be to implant bioprinted follicles to a person who has lost hair, a L’Oreal spokesperson told the BBC. If and when the researchers are able to print the world’s first hair follicle and get it to grow hair, then they can start to determine if they can modify the hair’s characteristics, such as its color, Pineau says.
Pineau is reluctant to give a concrete timeframe for when bioprinted hair follicles will be ready for lab-based testing, but she expects that the development will take years.