The People's Perspective on Medicine

A High-Tech Cancer Drug Offers Hope Against Severe Patchy Hair Loss

A high-tech anti-cancer drug may offer may eventually offer an effective treatment for serious baldness. Alopecia areata is the medical term for a mysterious autoimmune condition that leads to disfiguring hair loss not just on the scalp, but sometimes all over the body. Until now, treatment has been challenging.

Research into the function of the immune system has begun to reveal which immune cells attack and destroy hair follicles. Scientists at Columbia University studied more than 1,000 patients with alopecia areata and discovered a specific danger signal produced by hair follicle cells that triggers the damage.

The T cells responsible for destroying hair follicles seem to be homing in on a compound called Janus Kinase or JAK. Research in mice and a handful of alopecia areata patients suggest that a JAK inhibitor called ruxolitinib can reverse the hair loss from this previously untreatable disease. The results were quite dramatic. This advance could lead to real treatments for patients who suffer from this distressing condition.

 [Nature Medicine, online Aug. 17, 2014]

Although this research is rather technical, it is exciting because it provides a picture of what causes alopecia areata. This autoimmune condition that can cause large bald patches has not been well understood previously. It is relatively common, however, affecting as many as 1% of the population.

The new treatment may not be practical, since it is bound to be extremely pricey and may also have severe side effects that are acceptable for treating life-threatening cancer but not for a condition such as alopecia areata. Just the same, figuring out which pathway to use may help researchers develop a better way to treat this condition.

Previous research showed some benefit from herbal oils applied to the hairless spots. You can read about it in our free Guide to Battling Baldness. The picture is from the website Alopecist.com

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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