Researchers at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, have discovered a new way to protect hair follicles from chemotherapy, in an effort to prevent hair loss as a result of cancer treatments.
This could lead to new treatments that prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss – arguably one of the most psychologically distressing side effects of modern cancer therapy.
Published in the EMBO Molecular Medicine journal, the study describes how damage in the hair follicle caused by taxanes – cancer drugs that can cause permanent hair loss – can be prevented.
To do this, the scientists exploited the properties of a newer class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which blocks cell division and are already approved as so-called “targeted” cancer therapies.
Study lead author Dr Talveen Purba says: “Although at first this seems counter-intuitive, we found that CDK4/6 inhibitors can be used to temporarily 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.”
Taxanes are very important anti-cancer drugs commonly used to treat, for example, patients with breast or lung carcinomas. However, they can cause anxiety, particularly among breast cancer patients, for the very distressing and sometimes long-lasting hair loss it can induce.
(Thousands of patients in the United States are currently suing pharmaceutical company Sanofi over a lack of warning of the risk of permanent hair loss after treatment with the taxane drug docetaxel.)
He says: “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.
“Therefore, we must protect these cells the most from undesired chemotherapy effects, but in a way that the cancer does not profit from it.”
The team hopes 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 chemotherapy patients to mitigate against chemotherapy-induced hair damage.
This could complement and enhance the efficacy of existing preventive approaches like scalp cooling devices. The researchers underscore that more work is desperately needed in this under-funded field of cancer medicine.
Dr Purba says: “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.”
He adds: “We also don’t really know why some patients show greater hair loss than others, even though they get the same drug and 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 also promote hair follicle regeneration in patients who have already lost their hair due to chemotherapy.”