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US tests cap to halt chemo hair loss

WASHINGTON — Hair loss can be one of chemotherapy’s most despised side effects. Now US researchers are about to put an experimental hair-preserving treatment to a rigorous test.

The goal is to see if strapping on a cap so cold it numbs the scalp during chemotherapy works well enough to be used widely in this country, as it is in Europe and Canada.

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The first time Miriam Lipton had breast cancer, her thick locks fell out two weeks after starting chemotherapy. But when the disease struck again, she used a cold cap during treatment and kept much of her hair, making her fight for survival seem a bit easier.

‘‘I didn’t necessarily want to walk around the grocery store answering questions about my cancer,’’ recalled Lipton, 45, of San Francisco. ‘‘If you look OK on the outside, it can help you feel, ‘OK, this is manageable, I can get through this.’ ’’

Near-freezing temperatures are supposed to reduce blood flow in the scalp, making it harder for cancer-fighting drugs to reach and harm hair follicles. But while several types of cold caps are sold around the world, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved their use in the United States.

Scalp cooling is an idea that’s been around for decades, but it has not caught on here in part because of a worry about safety: Could the cold prevent chemotherapy from reaching any stray cancer cells lurking in the scalp?

‘‘Do they work and are they safe? Those are the two big holes. We just don’t know,’’ said American Cancer Society spokeswoman Kimberly Stump-Sutliff, an oncology nurse who said studies abroad haven’t settled those questions. ‘‘We need to know.’’

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