Patients' Gray Hair Turns Dark After Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

A surprising side effect of lung cancer treatment is turning heads.
BY Mindy Waizer
PUBLISHED July 27, 2017
Cancer treatments can have some terrible side effects. But one recent immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer has turned up a surprising — and not unwelcome — result. The patients’ gray hair turned significantly darker. 

The study, which was published in JAMA Dermatology, examined 14 patients who have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and were receiving immunotherapy treatments including one of the following agents: Opdivo (nivolumab), Keytruda (pembrolizumab) or Tecentriq (atezolizumab) at a hospital in Spain. Adverse effects of these kinds of treatments are likely to include cutaneous toxic side effects or dermatological problems, so the patients were being monitored by dermatologists.

What doctors didn’t expect to see was that over the course of the treatment, the patients’ hair returned to youthful-looking, darker shades — the shades the patients’ hair had been before their hair turned gray. The average age of the patients was 65.

Hair repigmentation is very rare. It has been reported before in relation to drugs such as Thalomid, for example, but it has never before been reported in relation to immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer.

The reason for the darkening of patients’ hair color in these cases is still unclear. The number of patients in this study is small, and of course, more studies must be conducted.

“This was totally unexpected, so it was exciting,” Noelia Rivera, M.D., dermatologist, Department of Dermatology, Hospital Universitari Germans Trias i Pujol, one of the authors of the study, said in an interview with CURE.   

“The high rates of good response to therapy in these patients was also an exciting finding. We are surprised at the results, and we are encouraged to keep on with the study,” she said.

Thirteen of the 14 patients responded well to the immunotherapy treatment, reporting either partial or fully stable disease states. One had to stop the therapy after four cycles of treatment because of a life-threatening progression of the disease.

The dual, positive implications of this study could be far-reaching. First, of course, it is good news for many patients with lung cancer, who may be able to benefit from these effective therapies. Second: just imagine if researchers could isolate the method for turning back the clock on graying hair. A whole new wave of age-defying hair solutions could be born.

Rivera urges a cautious approach to the news of these patients’ hair repigmentation. “A lot of research is yet required, first to come up with a study, and after that, to get funding to develop the project,” she said.
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