Using a drug designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, dermatologist Dr. Brett A. King helped a 25-year-old patient with nearly no hair on his body grow a full head of hair in eight months.
The man had alopecia universalis, a rare form of hair loss that has no cure or long-term treatment.
Though there’s a long way to go until King and his colleagues declare victory over baldness, he said his recent findings are promising.
“It is really exciting,” said King, an assistant professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. “At the very least, this means many folks who have been told there isn’t a solution may now have a solution.”
Others in the alopecia community also are optimistic, if cautiously so. “We are excited about any research that shows potential to re-grow hair in people with alopecia areata,” said Gary Sherwood, spokesman for the California-based National Alopecia Areata Foundation. “While we remain hopeful, this is a preliminary study with only one individual and needs to be further studied in larger populations.”
Christine Marotta, a Fairfield County resident who has had alopecia for decades, said the Yale research had interesting implications.
“It sounds promising,” said Marotta, who provides telephone support for Connecticut residents with alopecia areata.
There are several varieties of alopecia, which is just another word for hair loss, King said. The most common form is alopecia areata, which affects 4.5 million Americans. In this form of the disease, the hair falls out in patches. Alopecia universalis is the rarest form of the illness, and involves the loss of nearly all body hair.
Alopecia is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body (in this case, the hair follicles) is attacked by its own immune system.
King said there are some treatments for alopecia areata, primarily the injection of steroids into the scalp. But it’s harder to treat areata patients with “countless” bald spots, or patients with alopecia totalis — or complete baldness of the scalp. “There are oral steroids, but that is very unreliable,” King said. “And steroids given by mouth are not a long-term solution.”
There are even fewer options for those with alopecia universalis. King said when the 25-year-old patient, who lives in New Haven County, came to him, it was to treat his psoriasis, not his hair loss. “There wasn’t even a question” that doctors could treat the man’s alopecia. But despite the seemingly hopeless situation, King thought it might be possible to treat the man’s psoriasis and hair loss using an drug called tofacitinib citrate. The drug was approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which, like alopecia, is an autoimmune disease.
King said the work of another researcher, Columbia University scientist Angela Christiano, inspired his decision to try the treatment. Christiano showed that tofacitinib and a related medicine reversed alopecia areata in mice.
After two months of treatment with the medication, not only did the patient’s psoriasis show improvement, but he’d grown scalp and facial hair. After three more months of treatment with a higher dose of the medication, the man completely regrew scalp hair and had clearly visible eyebrows, eyelashes and facial hair. By eight months of treatment, there was a full regrowth of hair, and the patient reported no side effects.
King and his colleague Dr. Brittany G. Craiglow wrote a paper on the trial, which was published this week in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
The next step, King said, is getting approval for a topical version of the medication and conducting a larger trial. That next stage could be some time away, but King said his hopes are high that the medication will be helpful in treating not just alopecia universalis, but also other forms of baldness.
“It may be effective for other kinds of hair loss, but maybe not all other kinds,” King said.