Scientists in the UK have discovered a new way to protect hair follicles during chemotherapy, which they hope could be used to prevent hair loss as a result of cancer treatment in the future.
Previous research from the University of Nottingham uncovered how traumatic hair loss can be for cancer patients, with many women involved in the study describing losing their hair as being more difficult than losing their breasts to cancer.
The latest research, from the University of Manchester, aimed to remove this trauma by exploring why hair loss happens during cancer treatment – then finding ways to stop it.
In the new study, the scientists describe how damage in the hair follicle is caused by taxanes, a type of cancer drug most commonly used to treat patients with breast or lung cancer. Taxanes can lead to long-lasting hair loss, which can be “very distressing” to patients, they said.
“A pivotal part of our study was to first get to grips with how exactly hair follicles responded to taxane chemotherapy,” lead author Dr Talveen Purba explained. “We found that the specialised dividing cells at the base of the hair follicle, that are critical for producing hair itself, and the stem cells from which they arise, are most vulnerable to taxanes.
“Therefore, we must protect these cells most from undesired chemotherapy effects – but so that the cancer does not profit from it.”
The scientists exploited the properties of a newer class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which block cell division and are already medically approved as so-called “targeted” cancer therapies.
“When we bathed organ-cultured human scalp hair follicles in CDK4/6 inhibitors, the hair follicles were much less susceptible to the damaging effects of taxanes,” they said.
The team hope that their work will support the development of externally applicable medicines that will slow, or briefly suspend, cell division in the scalp hair follicles of patients undergoing chemotherapy to mitigate against hair loss. This could complement and enhance the efficacy of existing preventive approaches, such as scalp-cooling devices.
The researchers emphasised that more work is desperately needed in this area, where patients have waited for so long to see real breakthroughs in pharmacological hair loss prevention.
“Despite the fact that taxanes have been used in the clinic for decades, and have long been known to cause hair loss, we’re only now scratching the surface of how they damage the human hair follicle,” said Dr Purba.
“We also don’t really know why some patients show greater hair loss than others even though they get the same drug and drug-dose, and why it is that certain chemotherapy regimens and drug combinations have much worse outcomes.
“We need time to further develop approaches like this to not only prevent hair loss, but promote hair follicle regeneration in patients who have already lost their hair due to chemotherapy.”