A team of dedicated medical researchers at New York's Columbia University have been at the forefront of hair loss
developments in recent years.
The medical professionals, including Dr. Angela Christiano
who herself experienced the autoimmune disorder, have focused particularly on Alopecia Areata
and its various phenotypes.
They have already established that a suite of drugs known as JAK inhibitors
can regrow hair lost to even the most extreme forms of Alopecia Areata, which are currently untreatable. The Trustees of Columbia University are working with Aclaris Therapeutics to license the treatments the team produces; it is hoped these will be available for release by 2021
and become the first MHRA licensed and FDA approved treatments for all types of autoimmune alopecia
Now, in addition to helping people with these sudden onset hairloss conditions, the Columbia team has identified a way in which a gene associated with Alopecia Areata could be exploited to help improve the efficacy of immunotherapy for treating cancer patients.
What is immunotherapy for cancer?
Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is used to help the immune system to find and attack cancer cells, thereby helping the body to fight cancer. It can be used on its own or with additional cancer treatments
and can be useful for patients where chemotherapy or radiation has been ineffective, given it is considered a more 'targeted' treatment.
According to Cancer Research
, 'Cancer immunotherapytreatments that harness and enhance the innate powers of the immune system to fight cancerrepresents the most promising new cancer treatment approach since the development of the first chemotherapies in the 1940s. For more than 60 years, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) has been the pioneer in advancing this new class of treatment.'
'Cancer immunotherapy offers the possibility for long-term control of cancer. Immunotherapy can “train” the immune system to remember cancer cells. This “immunomemory” may result in longer-lasting and potentially permanent protection against cancer recurrence. Clinical studies on long-term overall survival have shown that the beneficial responses to cancer immunotherapy treatment are durablethat is, they can be maintained even after treatment is completed.'
Immunotherapy may not cause the same side effects as chemotherapy and radiation, however, side effects are still possible. These tend to revolve around the stimulation of the immune system, ranging from minor inflammation to more severe reactions, described by Cancer Research as being 'similar to autoimmune disorders'.
Leveraging Alopecia Areata gene to improve cancer immunotherapy
According to the research paper
published in the June 2018 Cell Systems journal, leveraging the IKZF1 gene could help improve cancer immunotherapy. This gene, when overactive, was previously found to trigger Alopecia Areata by over-producing immune cells and destroying hair follicles.
Science Daily reports that lead study author, Angela Christiano, PhD, Richard and Mildred Rhodebeck Professor of Dermatology and Genetics and Development at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, explains: "While immunotherapies have shown great promise in cancer, most patients do not benefit from these treatments because their tumours are able to evade the immune system.
But one way around this obstacle is to harness genes that cause the recruitment of T cells in autoimmune disease, and use them to attract T cells to kill tumors. In this study, we showed that a gene
[IKZF1] that recruits T cells in alopecia areata - a condition in which immune cells attack and destroy hair cells - is turned off in various types of cancer, protecting them from the immune system. But if we turn that gene back on, we can make those cancers vulnerable to the immune response.
The key immune cells in alopecia areata are the same cells that many cancers can evade. These so-called killer T cells are crucial for the success of cancer immunotherapies
Given that - as Cancer Research states - immunotherapy may be able to teach the body how to fight cancer in the long, as well as short-term, potentially providing protection against relapse or new tumours developing - this breakthrough could be hugely significant. We will be following the development of this exciting research and will provide updates as and when new information becomes available.