Cancer is often treated with drugs that limit the activity of epidermal growth factor receptors, proteins involved in cell growth that can be overactive during the disease. But EGFR inhibitor drugs can cause side effects such as severe skin rashes. Researchers have determined that the rashes appear to be due to infections following hair growth and have developed a strategy that prevents skin damage in mice, according to a study published Wednesday (December 11) in Science Translational Medicine.
Normally, when hair grows, skin stem cells create a secure barrier surrounding a hair follicle after a hair emerges from the skin. The barrier prevents microorganisms from entering the skin and causing infection. A team led by cancer researcher Maria Sibilia at the Medical University of Vienna found that inhibiting EGFR in mice also interfered with the barrier-creating ability of skin stem cells, which allowed bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus to infect the broken skin and lead to inflammation. This could explain the skin-related side effects of EGFR inhibitors in cancer patients.
The team also found that treating EGFR-deficient mice with the growth factor FGF7 preserved the skin barrier and did not cause tumor growth. FGF7 could potentially be used to prevent skin damage in people undergoing cancer treatment.
J. Klufa et al., “Hair eruption initiates and commensal skin microbiota aggravate adverse events of anti-EGFR therapy,” Sci Transl Med, doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aax2693, 2019.
Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.