For people diagnosed with cancer, the damage and distress caused by the condition can be further compounded by the hair loss they experience during and after chemotherapy treatment. While the drugs used during chemotherapy are often effective in destroying the cancerous cells, they also attack healthy cells, including the hair follicles. This, of course, can lead to partial or complete hair loss, as well as a range of other side effects.
Now a team of researchers at the University of Arizona are attempting to find a way to use such drugs to cure the cancer but leave the healthy cells intact, thereby avoiding the chemotherapy hair loss suffered by cancer patients.
Marek Romanowski, who is a PhD associate professor of biomedical engineering at the university, is leading a team of graduate students in research which they believe could put an end to these side effects.
Their research is focusing on changing the way in which the chemotherapy drugs are delivered to the body. At present, one of the main methods used to disperse the drugs to cancerous cells is by utilising liposomes- tiny microscopic capsules which are made of organic compounds which already exist within the body. Because the body does not recognise the drugs contained within as a threat, these capsules give the drugs the time they need to act upon the cancerous cells.
Unfortunately when these lipid compounds eventually dissolve, they release their toxic payload haphazardly throughout the body. When healthy hair follicles are attacked, damaged and destroyed by the drugs, the result is hair loss.
Infra-red activated capsules
What professor Romanowski and his team are trying to do is to make the delivery of the chemotherapy drugs more precise, so that only the cancerous cells are destroyed, while healthy cells throughout the body remain unaffected by the treatment.
Their plan is to coat the liposome capsules with a thin coating of gold, which will then be targeted with pulses of infrared light. Because gold heats up when bombarded with infrared light, this causes the capsule to break apart and release its contents. What this means is that doctors could use an infrared light beam, which is able to penetrate harmlessly through skin, to ‘activate’ the chemotherapy drugs in the specific areas where cancerous tumours are present, thereby preventing the drugs from dispersing haphazardly throughout the body.
Other research in the prevention of chemotherapy hair loss
At the end of last year we reported on similar hair loss research being carried out by a team of Irish scientists at the University of Cork. Their approach relies on damaging the outer membrane of cancerous cells so that the chemotherapy drugs can penetrate tumours more quickly and effectively. Because this would result in a smaller quantity of the drugs being used, it is hoped that harmful side effects such as hair loss could be reduced and even prevented during such treatments.