Author: James Hamblin
New uses of stem cells and 3-D printing could make baldness obsolete (for the wealthy).
In the tunnels under New York, commuters squeeze into lumbering trains and try not to make eye contact with the people whose sweaty bodies are pressed against theirs. As they surrender to the will of the transit authority, their eyes wander upward to find an unlikely promise of control: Many cars are plastered with ads that say “Balding is now optional.” These ads feature men in various states of elation. The men all have hair—and not simply the errant tufts that have appeared for years in infomercials for “hair restoration.” No, this hair comes in the form of thick, leonine coiffures.
The ads are for a company called Hims, an online seller of the drugs finasteride and minoxidil (known by the trade names Propecia and Rogaine). The marketing copy implies there has been some sort of breakthrough in the science of hair loss. But Propecia and Rogaine have been available for decades. They have proved modestly effective at slowing hair loss, but they cannot entirely prevent or reverse it. Even for people who can afford $44 a month for the company’s hair-loss-drug package, balding is still not “optional.”
The physiology of balding has long vexed even the most entrepreneurial of scientists. Despite a rare confluence of commercial forces and scientific interest, generating new hair remains outside the realm of the possible. This could be changing, though—and not owing to new packaging of the same old medicines. Recently a series of scientific publications has explored advances that involve both stem-cell research and 3-D printing, with the goal of cloning a person’s actual hair and then inserting it into his or her scalp—in tremendous, unlimited quantities.
“For a long time, we’ve been saying this is 10 years away,” says Robert Bernstein, a dermatologist in Manhattan who specializes in hair transplantation. “But now it actually might be less.”
Of all the parts of the body to create in a lab, hair could seem like the simplest. It’s a strand of protein filaments wrapped around one another. Hair doesn’t have to “function” in the way of a liver or brain; it just has to sit around and grow and not fall out.
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