Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disease that begins with small areas of hair loss on the head and can progress to total head hair loss (alopecia totalis) or hair loss all over the body (alopecia universalis). This disease is known to affect 2% of the population and 6.5 million in the US alone.

Research into alopecia  has been ongoing for many decades and is finally receiving some success! Researchers recently found that an anti-cancer drug called ‘Ruxolitinib’, revived hair growth in cancer patients. Due to this finding, researchers proceeded to test the drug on Alopecia sufferers, and have done with roaring success! Many patients experienced hair re-growth within just five months of treatment, whilst only experiencing a few side effects (for example slight anaemia).

But what role is the drug actually playing? And what causes this disease in the first place?! Let’s get into the science shall we…

Our immune system is what protects us from the outside world and from the many bacteria and viruses that we encounter every day! However, sometimes our immune system can wrongly identify cells in our own body and think they are ‘foreign’ (i.e. not our cells). This can cause an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks certain parts of the body, and in the case of alopecia it attacks the hair follicles. Certain cells in particular play a part in this disease – called ‘killer T cells’ or ‘CD8+ cytotoxic T cells’. These also play a crucial part in killing viral cells such as cold or flu, so for that we have to thank them!

However we won’t thank them for attacking cells we would like to keep, such as our hair follicles. This is where this clever new drug ‘Ruxolitinhib’ comes in! Activation of these immune cells requires a certain cellular pathway, and understanding these pathways allows us to try to target and block the signal.  For example, molecules called interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) and Interleukin-2 (IL-2) signal a family of enzymes called Janus Kinase (JAK) to begin a cascade and cause the recruitment of the killer T cells to the skin dermis, and subsequently the hair follicles. ‘Ruxolitinhib’ acts to block these JAKs and prevent the recruitment of the T cells to the skin dermis, allowing hair growth!

As we know, all drugs do come with possible side effects, and more clinical trials are being put in place to ensure the drug safety before greater distribution.

The National Alopecia Areata Foundation is also ecstatic about this new finding: “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.”