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Drug Restores Hair in Some With Alopecia: FAQ

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A. Clynes and Christiano have treated a total of a dozen, the first three of whom are included in the new study. After 5 months of treatment, all three regrew more than half of the hair they had lost.

“They were very pleased and happy,” Clynes says. Of the next six patients, though, only three regrew that much hair, he says. The last three haven’t been treated long enough to reach any conclusions.

Q. If ruxolitinib and tofacitinib promote hair growth in people with alopecia, could they be used to treat run-of-the mill male-pattern baldness?

A. “It’s not obvious at this point,” Christiano says. She's  looking into that question, though.

Q. What are the side effects?

A. The labeling for the drug lists a number of serious potential side effects, such as low blood counts and infection. More common and less serious side effects include headache and dizziness, according to the labeling. Clynes says one person in his study has had “a touch of anemia. Nothing significant.”

Because people with alopecia are generally healthy, he says, “we didn’t expect much change in the blood counts.” The side effects may be worse in people with underlying and chronic illnesses, he says. And ruxolitinib probably does suppress the immune system, putting people at risk for infections.

Q. Why would anyone take a potentially risky medication for months just to regrow hair?

A. “This is a group of patients who’ve really had nothing,” says Christiano, who was diagnosed with alopecia at age 30 in 1996. “There’s no FDA-approved treatment. They’re desperate for something that works.”

Christiano, who’d lost 20% to 25% of her hair when she was diagnosed, tried steroid injections into the affected areas, a common treatment. “Some people spontaneously recover with no treatment,” she says, while in others the disease progresses to the point that they don’t have hair anywhere on their body, a condition called alopecia universalis. As a result of some publicity about her study, she says, her inbox has been flooded with emails from people eager to test ruxolitinib or other drugs in its class for alopecia.

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