SUSAN DENTZER: Of all the trials that accompany treatment for cancer, losing one's hair as a result of chemotherapy is among the toughest. Linda Chandlee of Washington, DC, recently underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer.
LINDA CHANDLEE, Chemotherapy Patient: The hair loss began to occur about four weeks after the first dose. It started coming out in clumps, and it took about a week, and I was completely bald.
SUSAN DENTZER: How did it make you feel?
LINDA CHANDLEE: I was devastated. It was a horrible feeling. Before, when I was feeling well, and I could be up and dressed and doing things, and I looked the same. But with the hair loss, when you walk in front of a mirror, you don't look the same anymore, and your self-image is so tied up in how you look that it was a constant reminder that something was seriously wrong.
SUSAN DENTZER: And hair loss from chemotherapy is more than just a cosmetic issue. Medical experts say some cancer patients even forego treatment for fear of the intense embarrassment that will result.
LINDA CHANDLEE: I do feel sometimes when I walk out on the street at lunch that I have a sign flashing over my head saying "chemotherapy, chemotherapy, chemotherapy. And you get used to it, and it - you try not to let it bother you, but it's always in the back of your mind that people are looking at you going, "she's got cancer."
SUSAN DENTZER: About one million Americans undergo chemotherapy for cancer each year. Whether men, women, or children, about half experience at least some hair loss, and that can include the disappearance of eyebrows and eyelashes along with other body hair. Most chemotherapy drugs work by targeting and killing cells that are rapidly dividing. Those include many cancerous cells as well as many healthy cells, including those in hair follicles, the sheaths that surround the bottom of the hair shaft.
The death of those cells is what causes hair to fall out. For many patients, a wig or hairpiece is one way of coping, like these for sale here at a Maryland store that caters to cancer patients. But in the future, there may be pharmaceutical approaches that will prevent chemotherapy- induced hair loss in the first place.
One such approach was outlined in a study published in the respected journal "Science." In the study, researchers at the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome described how they'd developed a compound; it appeared to prevent hair loss in rats that were given chemotherapy drugs. Stephen Davis was the lead researcher.
STEPHEN DAVIS, Glaxo Wellcome: We asked a very simple scientific question. Specifically, could we arrest the cells in the hair follicles in a temporary manner, which would make those cells less sensitive to the chemotherapy, and thereby we protect those cells from the killing effects of the chemotherapy, and maintain the hair and the hair follicle.
SUSAN DENTZER: To do that, Davis and his colleagues first located a particular enzyme in the body; it functions as a switch to turn on cell division in follicles, and it's called CDK-2. Then they designed special compounds to block this enzyme, called CDK-2 inhibitors. Then they tested the compounds on baby rats that were given two widely used chemotherapy drugs.
STEPHEN DAVIS: We applied our compound, topically, to the scalp, approximately four hours and two hours prior to administering the chemotherapy, and the results were just remarkable. We were able to protect hair loss only where we applied the compound, topically, into the, the scalp areas of the animal.
SUSAN DENTZER: Specifically, one group of animals got the special compound on their scalps and then a chemotherapy drug used to treat testicular and lung cancer. 70 percent of the rats had either no or partial hair loss on their scalp. And still another set of rats got the compounds and a drug used for advanced breast cancer. 33 percent of those animals had no hair loss. Davis says the results are statistically strong.
STEPHEN DAVIS: The science was very exciting on this project and that's why we feel there's a lot of promise with this approach for treating chemotherapy-induced hair loss.
SUSAN DENTZER: But at least for now, Davis cautions, that promise is some ways off. It could be several years before the safety and effectiveness of the compounds are established, or before they're made widely available for treating cancer patients. Preliminary as this research is, cancer patients like Chandlee say the findings give them hope.
LINDA CHANDLEE: It makes me feel really good that the research is going on, that somebody thought this was important enough to research.
SUSAN DENTZER: Amy Cordaro, who owns that Wheaton, Maryland wig store, agrees.
AMY CORDARO: I think it's good. It's about time. Emotionally it's very hard for people to lose their hair. If you have breast cancer and you lose a breast, you can hide it. You can't see it. But it's very hard to hide if you have no hair on your head.
SUSAN DENTZER: Glaxo Wellcome recently merged with pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, and the combined company is now contemplating whether to move forward with further research on CDK-2 inhibitors. Meanwhile, the results published this week in "Science" have already stimulated interest at other pharmaceutical companies in developing similar drugs.