A CURE for baldness could be on the horizon after a new drug was found to restore hair growth in around four months.
The breakthrough offers hope to millions, specifically those people diagnosed with alopecia. The autoimmune disease causes patchy and, in some cases, total hair loss. But scientists believe they could reverse the hair loss thanks to a new treatment.
And, the discovery marks the first step towards a cure for pattern baldness, with the next stage of trials investigating the drug’s effect on the most common form of hair loss in men.
The researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found 75 per cent of patients with moderate to severe alopecia showed “significant hair regrowth” after taking the drug ruxolitinib.
By the end of the treatment the average hair regrowth among patients was 92 per cent.
Dr Julian Mackay-Wiggan, associate professor at the university and a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian said: “Although our study was small, it provides crucial evidence that JAK inhibitors may constitute the first effective treatment for people with alopecia areata.
“This is encouraging news for patients who are coping with the physical and emotional effects of this disfiguring autoimmune disease.”
Alopecia areata, the second most common form of hair loss, can occur at any age and affects men and woman equally.
The disease usually causes hair loss on the scalp, but some patients also experience facial and body hair loss, with devastating consequences.
Currently, there are no known treatments that can completely restore hair growth.
Previously, the Columbia researchers identified the specific immune cells and the dominant inflammatory signalling pathways responsible for attacking the hair follicle, putting them into a dormant state.
Their investigations with mouse and human hair follicles showed that topical and oral drugs that block the Janus kinase (JAK) family of enzymes, known as JAK inhibitors, help to reawaken these dormant follicles.
They do that by blocking the inflammatory signalling that stops the hair from growing.
In the US two drugs that block the JAK inhibitors are already approved for use by the Food and Drugs Administration.
They are ruxolitinib, a drug used to treat bone marrow malignancies, and tofacitinib, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. In the UK ruxolitinib is also approved by Nice in the treatment of bone marrow disorders.
Dr Raphael Clynes, associate professor of dermatology at Columbia, said: "These disorders are both characterised by dysregulated signalling pathways, similar to alopecia areata, which is dominated by the inferferon signalling pathway.
"Even though the diseases are very different, this common feature gave us the initial idea to test JAK inhibitors in people with alopecia."
To arrive at their findings, the scientists tested the drug ruxolitinib on 12 patients with moderate to severe alopecia areata, suffering more than 30 per cent hair loss.
All the patients took the drug twice a day for three to six months. Nine of the patients showed hair regrowth of 50 per cent or more. And by the end of the treatment period 77 per cent of those who responded to the drug saw regrowth of more than 95 per cent. One in three of the patients who responded to the treatment had significant hair loss in the follow-up period after medication was stopped.
But their hair loss did not reach pre-treatment levels. The researchers said the drug was well-tolerated in all participants with no serious side-effects noted. Those that did occur were rare and included bacterial skin infections, skin allergy symptoms, and lower haemoglobin levels.
Dr Mackay-Wiggan said: "Our findings suggest that initial treatment induces a high rate of disease remissions in patients with moderate to severe alopecia areata, but maintenance therapy may be needed.
"While larger, randomised trials are needed to confirm the safety and efficacy of ruxolitinib in people with moderate to severe alopecia areata, our initial results are very encouraging."
The findings back up another study carried out at Stanford and Yale universities, which also showed patients with the condition responded to another JAK inhibitor drug.
Dr Christiano, who took part in that study, said: "Together, the two studies show that we're on the right track."
The Columbia researchers said they now plan to test the drugs in other conditions, including vitiligo, scarring alopecias and pattern baldness.
Dr Christiano added: "We expect JAK inhibitors to have widespread utility across many forms of hair loss based on their mechanism of action in both the hair follicle and immune cells."
The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.