Flexible Wearable Reverses Baldness With Gentle Electric Pulses

The self-powered device promoted hair growth in rodents better than medications

2 min read
Flexible Wearable in a dish, next to a baseball hat that it can go inside.
Photo: Alex Holloway

Why waste the energy used to tilt one’s head or digest food? University of Wisconsin-Madison engineer Xudong Wang is an expert at harvesting the body’s mechanical energy to power devices, such as an electric bandage that accelerates healing and a stomach implant that subdues hunger.

Now, Wang’s team is back with a self-powered wearable to tackle an age-old nemesis: hair loss.

Wang’s lab has created a motion-activated, flexible wearable that promotes hair regeneration via gentle electrical stimulation. They describe their work in a study published this month in the journal ACS Nano. In rodents, the device stimulated hair growth better than conventional topical medications.

The device can be discreetly hidden under a baseball cap, says Wang. He hopes to begin a clinical trial with humans within six months.

Still, the treatment won’t work for everyone: “Any technology to help hair grow requires some hair follicles to still be in there,” says Wang. “If a head has been completely bald for ten years and the hair follicles are completely gone…then our device, or any technology, will not be able to help.”

Today’s hair loss treatments are limited and imperfect: Topical medications can cause side effects such as sexual dysfunction and anxiety and hair transplantations requires several rounds of surgery.

Severalpreviousstudies have suggested electrical stimulation may be a safe, non-invasive, alternative treatment for hair loss. With that in mind, Wang applied his self-powered devices to the task.

The soft, stretchy device used in the study is about 1 to 2 millimeters thick and can be made in various sizes, says Wang. It contains no batteries or electronics, just a flexible rectangle of layered polymers that form a nanogenerator, which gathers energy from random movements of the body or head, and a small electrode that transmits that energy to the skin in the form of gentle, low-frequency pulses of electricity.

In a small experimental study—including just 12 animals total—the device performed well. Over a period of four weeks, rats with the device attached to shaved backs had faster hair growth and produced more dense hair than a control group of mice treated with topical medications. In genetically engineered nude mice, which lack the ability to develop fur, the device caused hair to grow longer and thicker than the other groups, and that hair remained on the backs of the mice for longer. None of the subjects experienced side effects from the electrical stimulation, says Wang.

Xudong (left) putting the device on a colleagueXudong Wang (left) puts the device on a colleague.Photo: Sam Million-Weaver

“The next step is human trials and to move to market as soon as we can,” says Wang, who has patented the technology. He hopes to begin human studies in the next six months to test the device on men and women at varying stages of baldness, and move to commercialization within a year.

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A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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