For many people, particularly women, one of the most upsetting parts of undergoing chemotherapy for cancer is the loss of their hair to the brutal treatment. On top of feeling tired and weak and going through other side effects from chemo, women who lose their hair don’t feel like they look like themselves anymore and struggle with recreating their self-image and self-esteem without their hair. Many women feel like not having hair makes them somehow a social outcast or less of a woman, which only adds to the distress of having cancer.
Not everyone who undergoes chemotherapy treatment loses their hair, and inventions like scalp-cooling caps have been created in recent years to help preserve chemo patients’ hair. However, these technologies can be uncomfortably cold (-15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit) and still don’t give patients a guarantee that they’ll be able to keep their beloved locks.
So the problem of chemotherapy-induced hair loss remains, and in some cases, it can be long-lasting or permanent. Several cancer patients have even sued drug company Sanofi recently after they claim they were not properly warned of the possible side effect of permanent hair loss caused by the chemotherapy drug Taxotere. It’s obvious that this is still a huge issue plaguing cancer patients and their families, and a solution would change their lives immensely.
Now researchers are looking into a new way to prevent hair loss in chemotherapy patients to help them maintain a positive sense of self and a feeling of normalcy as they go through treatment.
The study, published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine and conducted at the Centre for Dermatology Research, involved the use of a type of drug known as CDK4/6 inhibitors. CDK4/6 inhibitors are already FDA approved as targeted therapies for cancer, making them the perfect drugs to use to prevent hair loss in cancer patients. The drugs keep cells from dividing, which may seem like the opposite of what researchers were trying to do for hair follicle cells, but the medication also makes the hair less susceptible to the effects of taxanes, an ingredient in chemotherapy drugs that causes hair loss.
“Although at first this seems counter-intuitive, we found that CDK4/6 inhibitors can be used temporarily to halt cell division without promoting additional toxic effects in the hair follicle,” says lead author Dr. Talveen Purba. “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.”
Dr. Purba explains further how the drug works to prevent hair loss: “A pivotal part of our study was to first get to grips with how exactly hair follicles responded to taxane chemotherapy, and 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,” she says. “Therefore, we must protect these cells most from undesired chemotherapy effects – but so that the cancer does not profit from it.”
The researchers’ work is sadly underfunded due to the fact that it’s not considered a vital aspect of cancer treatment. Even still, they hope to get their treatment through clinical trials so that cancer patients can begin using it for hair loss prevention in addition to external hair preservation techniques. Their hope is that the CDK4/6 inhibitors will enhance the efficacy of treatments that are already available and result in better hair retention for more patients.
“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,” says 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 than others. 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.”
We’re happy someone has seen the value in researching something that seems like a small issue in the grand scheme of things but that actually drastically impacts the daily lives and emotional and mental health of cancer patients. We hope to see this hair loss prevention method available to all who need it sometime in the near future!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?