The device, which has been likened to a small domestic refrigerator, is expected to play a crucial role in boosting the self- esteem of many cancer sufferers, who find the hair loss associated with chemotherapy a demoralising experience.
The treatment, known as "cold cap" therapy, is said to prevent hair loss in more than 70 per cent of cases and has been introduced at several specialist cancer units and hospitals.
Glenn Paxman, who devised the system, said he decided to try to find a way of preventing hair loss after watching his wife, Sue, undergo treatment for breast cancer five years ago. "She had radiotherapy and chemotherapy and we coped until her hair began to fall out. It really stood out and that trauma was the trigger for me," he said.
The hair loss associated with chemotherapy is caused by some of the highly toxic drugs that are used. The drugs target healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, and hair root cells, because they divide rapidly, are particularly vulnerable.
Mr Paxman's "scalp cooler" works by reducing the temperature of blood vessels on the scalp and so cutting the blood supply to the hair cells, resulting in fewer of the toxic chemotherapy drugs reaching these cells, causing them less damage.
The device has a small refrigeration unit, which runs a special coolant through a closed circuit system at a temperature of -5C. This runs through a rubber spiral which lines a close-fitting cap resembling a cycle helmet. The cap is worn before, during and after chemotherapy. The treatment works only with certain drugs which are injected and cannot help with chemotherapy taken in tablet or other forms because those drugs remain in the body for longer.
"It's like a domestic fridge as far as its components are concerned," said Mr Paxman, who runs a cooling and refrigeration company in Huddersfield. "The motivation for this device was personal. I didn't set out thinking there was a business opportunity. I was looking to make something using my knowledge and I've spent tens of thousands of pounds."
Preventing hair loss could help patients win their battle against cancer, suggested Mr Paxman. "People can feel very down with cancer and losing their hair can make them feel more depressed and lose their self-esteem. But it's so important to give people a fighting chance. If you still have your hair, despite the treatment, you can think that things can't be that bad." Mrs Paxman agreed. "Although I was expecting hair loss, you still feel odd. There are people who won't have chemotherapy because of the hair loss, but it's a matter of life or death."
Although the principle of cooling blood vessels to prevent hair loss is not new, Mr Paxman believes his device can offer a higher rate of success and more comfort for patients than other procedures. Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital Trust in London has just bought four of the coolers after a six- month trial, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund is putting them on trial at the Churchill hospital in Oxford and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary uses two.
"We are hoping it will prove to be more effective than other methods," said Alison Allen, a breast-care nurse specialist at Huddersfield. "Our other method involves taking ice packs out of a refrigerator but they warm up. The 'scalp cooler' stays the same temperature."
The system is on trial at St James's hospital in Leeds, alongside another method, which involves ice caps with a temperature of -21C.Reuse content