Could Twice Daily Pill Cure Baldness?

A new pill has been discovered that restores the hair of patients suffering from alopecia after just four months. Scientists at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York managed to fully restore the hair of three patients,   suffering from alopecia baldness. The researchers did this by identifying the immune cells that stopped the hair follicles from growing in the first place; these are called T-cell immune cells.

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Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that can lead to partial or total hair loss (alopecia areata and alopecia totalis). The team at Columbia University tested several drugs on mice that were known to stop these immune cells destroying healthy hair follicles. All the mice grew back their hair, so the researchers then chose one of the drugs – ruxolitinib, and asked the men to take it twice daily for four to five months. After the time period all three men had regrown a full head of hair:

“We’ve only begun testing the drug in patients, but if the drug continues to be successful and safe, it will have a dramatic positive impact on the lives of people with this disease,” said US lead researcher Dr Raphael Clynes.

However, the team has established that so far, the drug only works on patients suffering from hair loss due to alopecia. It has no effect on male pattern baldness, which is a hormonal condition.

Ruxolitinib is an FDA approved drug used for the treatment of a certain form of bone marrow cancer in both the US and EU. It is known as a Janus kinase inhibitor, or JAK inhibitor. It can also be used to treat other inflammatory diseases. Four years ago scientists discovered that when the immune cells in alopecia patients were attracted to destroy the hair follicles, they gave off a kind of ‘danger signal’. Researchers traced this signal back to identify the specific T cells responsible, so that they could then target the key immune pathways with the exact JAK inhibitors.

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Photograph: Julian Mackay-Wiggan/PA

“We still need to do more testing to establish that ruxolitinib should be used in alopecia areata, but this is exciting news for patients and their physicians,” Dr Clynes added: “This disease has been completely understudied – until now, only two small clinical trials evaluating targeted therapies in alopecia areata have been performed, largely because of the lack of mechanistic insight into it.”

Co-author Professor Angela Christiano, also from Columbia University, highlighted the devastating psychological effect alopecia can have:

“Patients with alopecia areata are suffering profoundly, and these findings mark a significant step forward for them. The team is fully committed to advancing new therapies for patients with a vast unmet need.”

Professor David Bickers, a practising dermatologist at Columbia University who has treated many patients with the disease, said:

“There are few tools in the arsenal for the treatment of alopecia areata that have any demonstrated efficacy. This is a major step forward in improving the standard of care for patients suffering from this devastating disease.”

According to experts, it is thought that around 35 million men, and 21 million women in the U.S suffer from some kind of hair loss, although not all hair loss will be due to alopecia. For those that do suffer from this kind of baldness, it will be some comfort to know that perhaps, in the future, there may be a cure.

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