Drug Offers Hope For Those With Alopecia Areata

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For millions of people, the condition, which causes hair loss, leads to shame and mental anguish. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to Dr. Raphael Clynes about a possible cure.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Reversing hair loss has vexed researchers for years. But now, a promising breakthrough. This is not a treatment for male pattern baldness, which is quite common, but for alopecia, which is not. Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that causes hair to fall out, often, all over the body. Joining us to talk about this new development is the lead researcher of the clinical trials, Raphael Clynes. He is an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. Thank you for being with us.

RAPHAEL CLYNES: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: These early results have been called remarkable. So what can you tell us about the results?

CLYNES: Well, our study began with mouse models looking at what was causing the disease. Specific kinds of T cells that attack the hair follicle. And then we looked to see what was activating these T cells and looked for drugs that might block that. We then treated a few patients - now nine patients with Alopecia Areata with a drug called a JAK inhibitor. And the results are remarkable. Six of the nine first patients treated have had excellent responses.

WERTHEIMER: Excellent responses would be?

CLYNES: Complete hair regrowth.

WERTHEIMER: You mean, like, everywhere - eyebrows, eyelashes, hair on the body, hair on the head?

CLYNES: Correct.

WERTHEIMER: Now the drug that you and your colleague Dr. Christiano have tested, I understand it's approved for use for people who are very ill with bone cancer. Now we are accustomed to thinking of cancer drugs as being very close to toxic, drugs that make people sick. How do we know this won't cause serious side effects in people with alopecia?

CLYNES: The JAK inhibitors have actually been surprisingly well-tolerated as a class. But in healthy individuals, and Alopecia Areata individuals are, generally, otherwise healthy, we don't see many side effects yet. But it's early days, and we will see as we expand these trials further.

WERTHEIMER: We should say again that we're talking about alopecia. This is not male pattern baldness, which is very different. Is there any hope that you can see out there for all those balding guys?

CLYNES: Right. So we think by targeting the T cells, we're enabling the hair follicle to wake up and grow back in this autoimmune disease. We are doing work currently to see whether or not the targeting of the hair follicle itself is something that's part of this process in which the hair follicle may wake up when treated with this JAK inhibitor. So this work is ongoing. It's an intriguing question for which we're trying to get some answers.

WERTHEIMER: I bet you'd have a few volunteers if you needed them.

CLYNES: It is widespread, including myself.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Rafael Clynes from Columbia University. Thank you very much for doing this.

CLYNES: Thank you, Linda.

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