Research Proposes Method to Reduce Risk of Alopecia

Study suggests hair loss due to cancer may be prevented.

Alopecia or hair loss as a result of chemotherapy for cancer treatment may be prevented or reduced as proposed by a recent study. 

According to a recently published EMBO Molecular Medicine paper, scientists have conducted research to investigate the damage inflicted on human hair follicles by taxanes. They have discovered that taxanes are toxic for specialized niches of cells that can be found at the base of hair follicles, and that the niches contain the cells which divide rapidly to produce hair.

The research team further discovered that CDK4/6 [which is a drug that hinders in cell division] inhibitors, can prevent potential damage caused in the hair follicles by taxanes. According to the leading researcher:

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.

Talveen S. Purba, Ph.D. Leading Researcher

Moreover, it was inferred that taxanes are one of the leading causes of “severe and often permanent chemotherapy induced alopecia”. Based on their findings, the research team is of the view that there is a need to discuss new and effective strategies to control hair loss as a result of chemotherapy. Loss of hair is generally distressing for any individual, however, alopecia which is induced by chemotherapy is far more damaging to a person’s image of the self including body image and self esteem, as well as his/her quality of life, especially if the hair does not grow back.

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Over the course of the study, the research team has noted that almost 8% of people are wary of chemotherapy because they feel a sense of “psychosocial burden”, which has lead them to hope that their findings can aid and encourage the development of skin medicines, to be applied on the scalp of patients eventually leading to a reduction in or protection from hair loss.

Furthermore, it is believed that treatments which temporarily slow down or completely stop cell division in the hair follicles can help in boosting effectiveness of the hair preserving treatments such as, scalp cooling, which can otherwise be “unsatisfactory”. The findings can further aid in developing new treatments for prevention of hair loss in other parts of the body for instance: eye brows, beards, and/or pubic hair, valued for any number of reasons including for cosmetic, cultural and/or religious as well as psychosocial importance, respectively.

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In this recent study, Purba and her team were focused on two types of taxanes: paclitaxel and docetaxel, used by doctors for treatment of tumors in the breast and lungs, considered to be solid tumors. For this purpose they tested the drugs on the hair follicles cultured in a laboratory setting under conditions as close to the natural as possible. These follicles were taken from willing and consenting patients. It was inferred that paclitaxel and docetaxel were responsible for massive damage to the cell division process and were a major cause behind the triggering of cell death in follicle cells.

Additionally, the follicle cells which were damaged included transit amplifying cells which divide rapidly, and their progenitor or stem cells. Impairment of cell population can be an explanation for the “severity and permanence of taxane chemotherapy induced alopecia”. Upon administration of the palbociclib, a CDK4/6 inhibitor, to the cultured hair follicles before they were exposed to the paclitaxel, it was discovered that the palbociclib protected the follicles from further damage.

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The researchers have concluded that their findings are proof of principle that this type of cell protective therapy can control the potential damage of taxane chemotherapy. Consequently,  they have argued that there is an urgent need for work on prevention of hair loss in cancer patients, and that there is a greater need to study the regeneration of hair follicles to help victims of permanent hair loss as a result of chemotherapy.

However, the study has its limitations such as the need to answer why hair loss is significantly higher for some patients undergoing chemotherapy while it is not for other patients, as well as, the fact that while some chemotherapy treatments lead to mild hair loss, others are more damaging leading to severe hair loss or event permanent loss.

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.

Research Team

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