For many people undergoing chemotherapy, the loss of hair can be one of the most distressing side effects.
But a new breakthrough study could pave the way for a treatment to stop this hair loss.
Researchers from the University of Manchester have discovered a new strategy to protect hair follicles from taxanes - cancer drugs that can cause permanent hair loss.
The team focused on a newer class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which block cell division and are already approved as ‘targeted’ cancer therapies.
Dr Talveen Purba, who led the study, said: "Although at first this seems counterintuitive, 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.”
Taxanes are commonly used to treat patients with breast or lung cancer. However, many patients are unaware of the permanent hair loss following treatment.
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 team hopes its research could support the development of medicines that will slow or suspend cell division in the scalp hair follicles, mitigating against the chemotherapy-induced hair damage.
However, they emphasise that more research is desperately needed to understand why some patients show greater hair loss than others.
Dr Purba added: “We 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."