Losing hair can be one of the most frustrating and upsetting side effects of chemotherapy. Increasingly, people have been turning to scalp cooling to try to help. Researchers out of England dedicated to studying this method have made a new discovery about just how it works. They hope their work will ultimately lead to chemo hair loss becoming a thing of the past.
A new study conducted by a team at University of Huddersfield has found that cooling physically protects hair follicles from chemotherapy drugs. They learned this from cultivating cells isolated from human hair follicles in a lab. Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.
Lead author Dr. Nik Georgopoulos, a cancer expert at the University’s Department of Geographical and Biological Sciences, says, “Scalp cooling is currently the only treatment to combat ‘chemotherapy-induced alopecia’, yet little is known about its cytoprotective effect on human hair follicles.”
His team is trying to find out more, in collaboration with local scalp cooling company Paxman, which provided funding to set up a dedicated Scalp Cooling Research Centre at Huddersfield. The company was founded by Glenn Paxman, who saw how distressing the loss of her hair was to his wife Sue when she had breast cancer. The goal of the project has been to research scalp cooling, develop a topical product that could increase the effectiveness of cooling, and create an environmentally-friendly way to use 3D printing to make cooling caps ready for mass production. Their end goal is a world where chemotherapy patients don’t have to worry about losing their hair.
Chemo attacks all rapidly dividing cells in the body. Hair is targeted because it’s the second-fastest dividing cell. This is why so many patients end up losing their hair, usually beginning two weeks after they start treatment.
Before this research, Dr. Georgopolous says the assumption was that scalp cooling worked to combat this because as the area cools, veins become constricted and blood flow is reduced. That should mean less chemotherapy drug actually reaches the follicles. Now they have a better understanding.
He explains, “This is a really exciting discovery because our research now shows it is not as simple as that. We were able to measure how much chemotherapy drug goes into the cultured cells from hair follicles and what we have found is that cooling actually dramatically reduces the amount of chemotherapy drug being absorbed by the rapidly-diving cells of the hair follicle.”
This has shown for the first time that cooling has a direct effect on reducing the drug that reaches the follicle, not an indirect one. The center hopes to learn more and ultimately lead to this method being more widely used.
When it first opened, Paxman CEO Richard Paxman was optimistic about what the center could achieve.
He said, “The launch of the Paxman Scalp Cooling Research Centre is a historic event in the scalp cooling sector that will take our existing R&D projects to a whole new level. Paxman will now become the only hair loss-preventing scalp cooling provider firmly based on biological research. We are also taking an important step towards achieving our long-term Zero Hair Loss vision.”
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The American Cancer Society says scalp cooling has become more effective as more is learned about it. They note that in recent studies of women getting chemo for early-stage breast cancer, at least half of the women using updated devices lost less than half of their hair.
Some doctors have raised concerns that the cooling could also protect stray cancer cells in the scalp from chemo drugs, but reports of this so far have been rare. More research is needed to see how much of a concern this should be.
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