In a breakthrough new discovery, scientists have found a way to protect the hair follicle from chemotherapy which will help to prevent hair loss as a result of cancer treatments.
The new discovery could lead to new treatments that prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss – arguably one of the most psychologically distressing side effects of modern cancer therapy.
Undertaken by University of Manchester scientists and published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, the study from the laboratory of Professor Ralf Paus of the Centre for Dermatology Research describes how damage in the hair follicle caused by taxanes, cancer drugs which can cause permanent hair loss, can be prevented.
Preventing hair loss
To lead to potential hair loss treatments, scientists have exploited the properties of a newer class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which blocks cell division and are already medically approved as so-called ‘targeted’ cancer therapies.
Dr Talveen Purba, lead author on the study 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.”
Dr Purba said: “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 most from undesired chemotherapy effects – but so that the cancer does not profit from it.”
The researchers hope that this work will help with the development of externally applicable medicines that will be able to slow down, or briefly suspend, cell division in the scalp hair follicles of patients undergoing chemotherapy to mitigate against chemotherapy-induced hair loss. This could complement and enhance the efficacy of existing preventive approaches i.e. scalp cooling devices.
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.”
He added: “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 undergone hair loss due to chemotherapy.”