Scientists have discovered that two drugs, already in use for other conditions, entirely restored hair in three alopecia patients and are hopeful that the new drugs can lead to a cure. A trial of the new medication was conducted after the discovery of the specific white blood T-cells responsible for destroying the hair follicles in alopecia patients, resulting in baldness. Alopecia is a common autoimmune condition that causes either partial or total hair loss in those who have the disease.
The journal Nature Medicine published results of the trials on August 17. Head researcher Dr. Raphael Clynes of the Medical Center of New York’s Columbia University said that testing of the drug in patients has only begun, but if the success rate and the safety of the drug continues with further testing, many people currently suffering from alopecia-related baldness will be dramatically and positively affected. For men who suffer from male pattern baldness, which is caused by hormones and not related to alopecia, the new drug will not regrow hair.
The successful trial came after tests on mice using two drugs that block immune pathways. The new drugs can be taken in pill form. One of them, ruxolitinib, has previously been used in the EU and the U.S. for treating a type of bone marrow cancer. Tofacitinib, the other drug used, is approved in the U.S. for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Both drugs were tested on mice with alopecia and completely restored hair within 12 weeks.
Ruxolitinib was given in a twice daily, 20-milligram dose to three patients, all of whom had moderate-to-severe cases of alopecia areata, and all of whom experienced the complete regrowth of their hair. Alopecia areata is the most common autoimmune disorder in humans. The success of ruxolitinib is connected to the eradication of the T-cell immune cells which were discovered to be responsible for releasing the substance into the skin that triggers an attack on hair follicles by the body’s immune system. This attack eventually destroys the hair follicles completely. The discovery of the exact cell responsible allowed the researchers to target the immune pathways used in the process with a type of drug called JAK inhibitors.
The National Alopecia Areata Foundation says that approximately two percent of people are affected by alopecia areata, which translates to about 6.5 million persons with the condition in the U.S. Although alopecia is frequently first diagnosed in childhood, it can occur at any age. The resulting hair loss can range from having a few patches of baldness to a complete loss of body hair. In addition, the disease is unpredictable in its course, as the hair can fall out, grow back and be lost again. It is also different in each patient.
Those with the condition often suffer from emotional and psychological problems as a result of the disfiguring loss of their hair. The current treatments for alopecia include the use of immunosuppressant drugs or steroids, neither of which has been shown to completely restore hair growth in more than a few patients, and both of which can cause considerable side effects.
According to study author Angela M. Christiano, professor of dermatology and genetics at New York’s Columbia University Medical Center, side effects of ruxolitinib include anemia or a drop in blood platelet level as well as other abnormal blood tests, and infection. The chances of developing side effects are greater in those patients who suffer from additional chronic health conditions.
By Jennifer Pfalz