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Can Cooling Caps Help Cancer Patients Keep Hair During Chemo?

In a special feature in the December 27th issue of the Los Angeles Times writer Amber Dance investigated the current research into what is known as scalp cooling caps.   The Times reported that research studies run by UC San Francisco and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. are designed to ultimately lead to Food and Drug Administration approval for caps designed to keep hair from shedding during chemo treatments.

(Image of DigniCap by Dignitana in Lund, Sweden - All Rights Reserved)

Special skullcaps are applied to the head of cancer patients during chemotherapy treatments and are designed to keep poisonous chemotherapy drugs from reaching and impacting the hair follicles.  The special chilling caps have a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit which is designed to block the absorption of chemo from the hair roots.

The idea of using cold to try and block poisonous chemo from attacking the roots and follicles of hair is not new, but it has never been formally studied  with the idea of FDA approval until now.

Can wearing a chilly skullcap stop hair loss during chemo treatments?  UCSF study leader Hope Rugo is an oncologist who believes there is no way to prevent hair loss during chemo for any kind of cancer.  The prospect of total hair loss is very upsetting to many patients, especially women. 

UCSF oncologist Michelle Melisko points out that its a fact that many women make cancer treatment decisions based on the impact to their hair.  Melisko is actively investigating scalp-cooling systems because she understands the concerns women have about losing all of their hair during chemo treatments.

Cooling caps known as the DigniCap is made by Dignitana in Lund, Sweden.  More than 4,000 people undergoing chemo have tested the DigniCaps.  The good news?  According to Dignitana Chief Executive Martin Waleij, more than 85% of those using the caps have reported keeping their strand intact during treatment.

Besides the DigniCap there is another cooling cap system known as the Penguin cap.  UCSF study leader Rugo is examining the DigniCap and Melisko is studying the Penguin cap.

The DigniCap cycles coolant through special channels built into a snug fitting silicone style helmet.  The DigniCap is attached to a rolling control unit.  The cap is worn 20 minutes before chemo, throughout the administration of the chemo and then for half an hour or longer after the chemo is administered.

The result of cooling down the scalp means that the blood flows sluggishly to the scalp and limits the delivery of chemotherapy to the hair roots and follicles.  This means the hair follicles process less of the chemo.  Chemo is designed to attack cells which are rapidly growing and reproducing.  Some doctors worry that the cooling caps will actually cause cancer to eventually attack the tissues connected to the hair follicles because fast-growing cancer cells are known to attack the hair follicles.

Dignitan hopes to gain FDA approval for their cooling caps sometime in 2012.  A current cooling cap study is now underway with 20 early-stage breast cancer patients to see if the caps are a workable option and whether or not the patients will consistently stick with wearing the caps.  If the current study is successful another trial with 100 people will be undertaken to determine the results.

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