Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Hope for Chemotherapy-Induced Hair Loss

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April 2, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Kathryn LaRocque says the fashionable scarves she wound about her head for two months last fall were "a dramatic symbol of the fact that I was not healthy." Hair loss caused by cancer treatment was yet another way that the disease "differentiated me and took my private self into the public arena." So, LaRocque says she would welcome a drug that could prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss.

Stephen T. Davis, PhD, is working to develop a hair gel that would do just that. When Davis put the gel on rats who had been given chemotherapy drugs, he tells WebMD the gel was "100% effective in preventing hair loss in about half of the rats and partially effective in the remaining 40%." He says that the compound offered "stunning protection." Davis, a researcher at Glaxo Wellcome Research and Development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, presented the study at the meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Another cancer researcher, William N. Hait, MD, PhD, director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, says that it is only recently that cancer research has turned to quality of life issues that affect cancer patients. At one time, very few cancer patients survived, but now about half of the one million Americans who will be diagnosed this year with cancer will survive the disease. But researchers are now faced with issues about the quality of that survival, as well as the pain and suffering patients endure during active treatment. Improved pain medication has been helpful and new drugs are effectively counteracting the nausea caused by chemotherapy, but so far efforts to prevent hair loss have been ineffective.

One early approach to protecting against the hair loss, also called alopecia, was the use of "ice caps. Patients would wear these caps with the hope that they would freeze the scalp and thus protect the hair from the effects of chemotherapy," Hait said. Ice caps were extremely painful and also offered only selective protection because "only some areas of the scalp would actually be frozen."

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Hait says the results of Davis' study are very encouraging but that the cancer drug used in the study, etoposide, doesn't cause the severe hair loss seen with some other drugs. He says, for instance, that women taking Taxol for treatment of breast cancer usually lose all body hair, "even eyebrows, a condition called alopecia totalis." Etoposide is used for treatment of cancers of the bladder, testicles, and lung.

LaRocque, 56, tells WebMD that her experience has shown her that there is a wide variation in the effects of cancer drugs. "I had only partial hair loss, not like the breast cancer women who lose all their hair in two weeks," says LaRocque. She underwent 10 months of chemotherapy and a complicated course of disease. Last May, she "went in for a colonoscopy, they found colon cancer and did the surgery right at the same time," she says. Following surgery for advanced colon cancer, a chest X-ray disclosed a tumor in her lung.

Ten months of chemotherapy shrunk the tumor but "I lost my pony tail. My hair kept getting thinner and thinner and finally last fall I had to resort to scarves and turbans," she says. In December, she decided to cut her hair "very, very short and let it go natural," she says. Although the hair loss and subsequent severe coif caused a "major identity crisis," LaRocque is now looking forward to returning to her job as an estate planner and financial advisor in San Francisco.

Hait says that it would be interesting to test the drug's effectiveness against Taxol. Davis counters by saying that "rats given Taxol don't lose their hair, but we did test the compound on rats treated with [two other cancer drugs], which do cause alopecia totalis." He says the compound was just as efficacious in those rats as well.

Here's how the gel works. Chemotherapy attempts to kill cancer cells but because the cells of healthy growing hair behave in much the same way as cancer cells, they get killed too. By spreading the gel on the scalp, the compound can offer short-term protection to the hair follicles while not interfering with the cancer-killing potential of the chemotherapy drugs, says Davis. He says that the gel is applied before chemotherapy is given and then washed off after chemotherapy. "The duration of action of the compound is 24 hours," he says. Because the gel is on the scalp for such a brief period, "there are no observable cosmetic affects on the hair. There is neither less hair, nor more hair," he says.

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He says that the rat studies of the compound found that it had no harmful effect on the skin and the company is now proceeding with plans for a human study.

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