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UW professor may have found cure to hair loss from chemotherapy

Study shows an ingredient in Novocain and similar products could stop hair loss

UW professor may have found cure to hair loss from chemotherapy

MADISON, Wis. - Lynn Malayter was shocked enough to be diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago.  She never thought she would have to endure chemotherapy, but with the odds of recurrence stacked against her, Malayter went through about a year of treatments.

"2013 was a challenge, but we overcame it," Malayter said.

When Malayter started losing her hair, her husband helped by shaving her bald.  She remembered it being cold and an inherent need to cover her head.  She got scarves, hats, and wigs.

"To maintain a sense of normalcy would have been really nice," Malayter said.

Led by UW oncology professor William Fahl, a preclinical study could help chemotherapy patients get a step closer to that normalcy.

Fahl came across the discovery accidentally.  He was testing how effective another drug was for preventing hair loss during chemotherapy and radiation when he found a vasoconstrictor can help save the hair follicles of those going through those treatments. 

The drug - also found in Novocain and similar numbing agents at dentist offices – can restrict blood flow to an area of skin.  When used to eliminate feeling in your gums, Fahl said the vasoconstrictor is keeping the injected anesthetic in a particular spot.

Fahl suggested that applying the ingredient topically to the scalp could protect hair follicles from the chemotherapy, and therefore prevent hair loss.

"The blood vessels lay a few, about a millimeter below the surface.  So by topically applying it, you constrict those blood vessels and in the process, without detail, you essentially diminish the amount of chemotherapy that's delivered to that thin film of tissue, and that tissue basically holds all of the stem cells for the hair follicle as well as the skin, so you're protecting them," Fahl explained.

Fahl said in a time when other studies are pushing for more chemotherapy, preventing some of the most hated side effects of treatment becomes even more important.

"Our goal is that in 10 years, people go to their oncologist with the clear expectation of having their cancers cured and do so in a manner that's consistent with their life," Fahl said.

As the treatment continues to be tested, Fahl hopes more funding will soon be offered to push it through the necessary phases.

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