A simple, but elegant discovery: minimizing hair loss from chemotherapy

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Every so often a really ingenious idea pops up that ends up making a real difference.

Here is one: by keeping the scalp cool, hair loss from chemotherapy can be largely prevented.

The FDA has approved a clinical trial to be conducted by Dignitana for a medical device that does just this. The company will study 110 patients at multiple research centers in the U.S. to further investigate Dignitana s DigniCap® System. Although previous clinical trials in the U.S. have involved very few people, the device is widely used in Europe and Asia, where it reportedly prevents hair loss in about 80 percent of women undergoing chemotherapy.

The theory behind the device is simple but elegant. By keeping the scalp cool, the blood vessels that feed the scalp are constricted and less likely to absorb the cytotoxic agent. Blocking this absorption into the scalp lowers the amount of drug that is taken up, and spares the scalp cells the cell type that is among the most sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy.

While it would be possible to dismiss this as purely a cosmetic issue, it is anything but. While it is impossible to estimate how many women will forgo chemotherapy for fear of losing their hair, this side effect is far from trivial to women who are already faced with a life-threatening situation.

Principal investigator Dr. Hope S. Rugo at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center says, "Most women receive treatment in addition to surgery, almost always including chemotherapy. Hair loss is an inevitable side effect caused by this life-saving treatment, and for many women this is the most emotionally distressing and disturbing impact from their diagnosis. A short course of chemotherapy results in total hair loss taking many months to grow back."

This view is echoed by Susan A. Melin, MD, Associate Professor of Hematology/Oncology at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital: "Being able to safely prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss may relieve patients of some of the emotional stress they are already going through."

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom is in full agreement. He says, It is always satisfying to see someone coming up with a simple, clever idea which not only works, but address a problem for which no solution exists. Good for them.