There are certain key terms that always pique the interest of anyone involved in hair loss research when they are poring through the medical press – and one of the more surprising ones is rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
The reason professionals involved in hair loss are interested in RA is because of the similarities between it and a fellow autoimmune disorder named Alopecia Areata. The latter, of course, is a well-known condition which usually leads to sudden, smooth and usually rounded bald patches.
While the two conditions are obviously far from identical, they do share key markers which have aroused the interest of the medical community; thanks to recent success stories about people with Alopecia Areata being treated with RA drugs, the stage has been set for ever more synergy between scientists working in the two fields.
Humira to treat Alopecia Universalis
The market-leading RA drug at present is an injectable named Humira – it is a recombinant human IgG1 monoclonal antibody, used as a tumour necrosis factor (TNF) blocking anti-inflammatory drug. In 2014 it hit the headlines when doctors at the New York School of Medicine said they had successfully treated a woman with a more severe form of Alopecia Areata known as Alopecia Universalis with adalimumab (the name of the drug before it has been branded).
This week Reuters news agency reported that AbbVie, the global pharmaceutical company behind the hugely successful Humira, had a potential second ‘blockbuster’ drug waiting in the wings for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
The pharma giants have invested heavily in a Belgian drug company named Ablynx whose new drug vobarilizumab has just completed a 12-week, Phase IIb clinical trial on people with RA. They say that it produced clinical remission from disease in up to 41 per cent of patients.
While the new – hard to pronounce – drug still has some way to go before it makes it to market, it seems inevitable that someone at one of the two companies is already wondering whether it might deliver some interesting results when given to people with Alopecia Areata and its related conditions.
According to Reuters, other applications are being considered already. Ablynx’s CEO Edwin Moses told them: “If you look at the size of the opportunity, not just in RA but also in lupus and other possible inflammatory conditions, you have to begin to think of the billions in terms of the sales opportunity.”
What makes the new drug especially interesting for AbbVie – whose investment assures them first refusal on the Belgian drug if it successfully passes further clinical trials – is that the patent on Humira is nearing expiration and a flood of bio-similar alternatives look set to enter the market.
Alopecia Areata is an enigmatic condition that has recently attracted the attention of experts in several different strands of medicine, often by accident. As well as being treated with anti-inflammatory drugs like Humira, Alopecia Areata has recently also been treated with drugs known as (Janus Kinase) JAK inhibitors, some of which are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Several success stories focus on a drug named tofacitinib (brand name Xeljanz), which attracted the medical community’s attention after doctors at Yale University orally gave the drug to a man with Alopecia Universalis. Seven months after he started treatment, his hair – they reported – had fully grown.
Since then, a much-respected team at Columbia University have experimented with a topical version of the drug on human hair follicles grafted onto mice. The next natural step was for someone to commit to a trial of tofacitinib, applied topically. This was announced by Yale’s Dr Brett King just last month.
His plan is to recruit 10 people with Alopecia Areata or one of its related conditions and treat them for a maximum of six months to see what level of hair growth has been achieved.
While all of the above developments are undoubtedly exciting and offer some much-needed hope for people with Alopecia Areata, it should be stressed that many of the drugs come with the risk of some pretty severe side-effects.
For that reason, existing Alopecia Areata treatment options already available via a dedicated hair loss clinic remain an appealing prospect, especially when they have proved effective in so many cases. For those with the more severe iterations of Alopecia Areata – Alopecia Totalis and Alopecia Universalis – however, for which there is no truly effective treatment yet, the boom in clinical trials and research into compelling potential treatments remains a positive source of hope.
The Belgravia Centre
The Belgravia Centre is the leader in hair loss treatment in the UK, with two clinics based in Central London. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the UK or the rest of the world. View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which are the largest collection of such success stories in the world and demonstrate the levels of success that so many of Belgravia’s patients achieve. You can also phone 020 7730 6666 any time for our hair loss helpline or to arrange a free consultation.