SUNDAY, Aug. 17, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A drug used to treat a rare type of bone marrow cancer restores hair in patients with an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, a new study found.
Columbia University Medical Center researchers found that the drug ruxolitinib (brand name: Jakafi) restored hair growth in a small number of patients with alopecia areata, a disease in which immune cells destroy hair follicles.
Alopecia areata can occur at any age and affects men and women. Patients typically lose patches of hair on the scalp, but may also lose facial and body hair. Currently, there are no known treatments to completely restore hair in these patients, who can suffer mental and emotional stress, the researchers said.
First, the researchers identified the immune cells that destroy hair follicles in people with alopecia areata. They also discovered that ruxolitinib -- which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat a bone marrow cancer called myelofibrosis -- eliminated these immune cells.
The study team first tested the drug in mice and then in a small number of people with moderate to severe alopecia areata (more than 30 percent hair loss). Within five months of starting treatment, three patients had total hair regrowth.
"We've only begun testing the drug in patients, but if the drug continues to be successful and safe, it will have a dramatic positive impact on the lives of people with this disease," study leader Dr. Raphael Clynes said in a Columbia news release.
"We still need to do more testing to establish that ruxolitinib should be used in alopecia areata, but this is exciting news for patients and their physicians," he added. "This disease has been completely understudied -- until now, only two small clinical trials evaluating targeted therapies in alopecia areata have been performed, largely because of the lack of mechanistic insight into it."
The study findings were published online Aug. 17 in the journal Nature Medicine.
The American Academy of Dermatology has more about alopecia areata.