23rd September 2019

Manchester scientists find new way to protect hair from chemotherapy

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Researchers based at The University of Manchester have discovered a new way to protect hair from the effects of chemotherapy, which could help prevent lung cancer patients from losing their locks during treatment. 

Many people who undergo chemotherapy describe losing their hair as one of the most psychologically distressing side effects they face.

“One of the most distressing parts of my treatments was the hair loss. It felt like I was losing part of my identity when my hair fell out. You change, and just looking in the mirror is really hard. It’s a constant reminder that you’re ill.”

Emma, who is living with incurable lung cancer.

Published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, the study led by Professor Ralf Paus of the Centre for Dermatology Research describes ways to prevent damage to follicles caused by taxanes – cancer drugs which can cause permanent hair loss.

To do this, scientists are using some of the properties of a newer class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors. These block cell division and are already medically approved as so-called “targeted” cancer therapies.

Taxanes are very important anti-cancer drugs, often used to treat patients with lung carcinomas. Hair loss induced by taxanes can be long-lasting and particularly upsetting.

Dr Talveen Purba is the lead author on the research project. He explained the challenge his team faced: 

“A pivotal part of our study was to first get to grips with how exactly hair follicles responded to taxane chemotherapy. 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 team are hoping that their work will support the development of medicines to slow or briefly suspend cell division in the hair follicles of patients undergoing chemotherapy, to protect against damage. This could then work alongside – and improve the effectiveness – of existing measures such as scalp-cooling devices.

Researchers emphasise that more work is needed in this severely under-funded field of cancer medicine.

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 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.”

Supporting you through chemotherapy:

Hair loss is a common side-effect of chemotherapy and can be distressing; however, it is usually temporary and does not happen with all chemotherapy drugs.

If you notice your hair starting to fall out, try wearing a hairnet at night and a hat or scarf during the day. Don’t brush your hair too much or use hair colourants or rollers. Most hospitals will be able to give you advice on how to get a good quality wig and which scarves work best.

Our ‘chemotherapy for lung cancer’ booklet can help you make positive, informed choices about your care and treatment. You may find this video a useful guide to what to expect and how to cope with hair loss, particularly the section that runs from 06.16 to 07.41.