‘Cooling cap’ prevents hair loss in some chemotherapy patients

December 14, 2016 Providence Health Team

It’s upsetting enough to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Losing your hair while undergoing chemotherapy adds to the distress.

Cancer caregivers and device manufacturers are encouraged by a new tool that appears to have prevented hair loss in half the participants in a clinical trial. The tool is a two-layer cap that circulates a cooling fluid around the scalp while a person receives chemotherapy.

“The results of our interim analysis showed that in the scalp cooling group, 50 percent of participants retained their hair, and in the control group 0 percent did,” Julia R. Nangia, M.D., a professor of medicine at Baylor University, explained recently at the 2016 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

The scalp-cooling cap, made by Paxman Coolers Ltd., an English company, is called the Orbis Paxman Hair Loss Prevention System. It is not yet commercially available, but the company is seeking clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to market the cap.

Clinicians who have used the cooling cap say they can’t say precisely why it’s effective in chemotherapy. It may be that constricting blood vessels in the scalp keep the cancer-fighting chemicals from reaching hair follicles. Or it may be that the cooling slows down the metabolism of the hair cell in a way that makes it less likely it will die and fall out.

Researchers continue to study the mechanism of scalp cooling in the lab, using skin cells and chemotherapy drugs.

Hair loss signals a cancer diagnosis

Retaining their hair can make a big difference to patients undergoing draining treatments for cancer, Dr. Nangia said.

“Hair loss takes a tremendous toll on the patient’s body image and they no longer have the anonymity of hiding the disease; everyone can see that they’re sick,” she said. “Preventing hair loss may help improve the emotional well-being for patients and help them maintain a degree of privacy.”

While the clinical trial showed that half the participants lost their hair, despite using the cooling cap, Dr. Nangia thinks those results can be improved.

“Variation in hair retention across the sites is likely a result of different types of chemotherapy administered – taxanes have higher hair retention rates – and the learning curve for fitting and operating the scalp cooling cap by nurses and physicians,” Nangia said. “As the cap becomes more widely used, best practices will be developed to ensure maximum results.”

Chemotherapy and its side effects

Chemotherapy is a common treatment for a range of cancers. It uses drugs that circulate in the bloodstream and attack cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is often injected into the bloodstream intravenously, in a technique known as systemic chemotherapy. But it can also be taken as a tablet, capsule or liquid, rubbed into the skin with a topical cream, or injected directly into an affected organ.

Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, infertility and, for many, hair loss.

Health care providers have learned a lot through the decades about treating cancer. Talk to your provider about which treatments will be most effective for you or a loved one. You can find a Providence provider or cancer center in our directory.

To learn more

We’ve written about cancer treatment, including chemotherapy:

Do all breast cancer patients need chemotherapy?
Clinical trials offer new lease on life for one patient
Chemo Brain: You’re not imagining it
Boosting your gut: probiotics and chemotherapy
Does chemotherapy cause lymphedema?

You can read more stories like these in the Cancer Survivorship section of our blog.

The results of the study are described in an article, “Scalp-cooling device cuts hair loss in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy,” published by the Baylor College of Medicine.

Paxman Coolers has a web site that includes videos explaining how the scalp-cooling system works.

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