A breakthrough has been made in preventing hair loss in cancer patients.
Doctors say that losing their hair while undergoing chemo adds to the distress of breast cancer patients.
Taxane-based chemotherapy drugs are an important tool for fighting cancer, but their toxicity damages hair follicles and can cause permanent hair loss.
To try and prevent hair loss, University of Manchester researchers have exploited a newer class of “targeted” cancer drugs.
The so-called CDK4/6 inhibitors block the division of cancerous cells while limiting the damage to hair follicles.
Study lead author Dr Talveen Purba said: “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.
“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.”
Researchers hope this approach could lead to new treatments to prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss, which can be traumatic for cancer patients.
They added patients have waited too long to see real breakthroughs in hair loss prevention because this field of cancer treatment is “lamentably under-funded.”
In the first stage of the research, Dr Purba’s team examined exactly how hair follicles responded to taxane chemotherapy.
They found that the specialised dividing cells at the base of the hair follicle were critical for producing hair.
They also discovered that the area most vulnerable to the chemotherapy side effects was the stem cells which hair grows from.
Dr Purba added: “We must protect these cells most from undesired chemotherapy effects – but so that the cancer does not profit from it.”
The team hope their work will help to develop externally applicable medicines to slow cell division in the scalp hair follicles to reduce hair damage.
Such medicines could complement and enhance existing preventive approaches including scalp cooling devices.
The researchers highlighted that more work is “desperately” needed in the field to deliver “real breakthroughs” for cancer patients and to find out why some suffer greater hair loss than others.
Dr Purba said: “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.”
“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.”
The study was published in the EMBO Molecular Medicine.