Cancer drug doubles as a cure for baldness, study finds

Doctors have found a new use for a common cancer medication – curing baldness.

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions developing new cancer drugs at nearly all times, but every now and then a study will reveal that a medication is capable of more than just its intended effect. According to a report from NBC News, a class of drugs used to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis could be incorporated into a cream that would promote the growth of hair.

Researcher Angela Christiano and her colleagues from Columbia University have found that JAK inhibitors can treat an uncommon disease that results in hair loss called alopecia areata. This happens when a person’s immune system mistakenly launches an assault on the body’s hair follicles, causing it all to fall out. The drugs suppress unintended immune responses, and are also useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and various forms of immune cell cancers affecting the blood.

Christiano said, “The surprise was when we started using the drugs on alopecia areata patients, when we used them topically the hair grew back much faster and more robustly than it did orally. That really got us thinking how that can be. It’s a little counterintuitive.”

JAK, the chemical in the immune system that the drug works to inhibit, places hair follicles into a resting state, causing them to stop growing new hairs. The JAK inhibitors prevent the immune system from shutting down hair production, allowing people to grow a full head of hair.

The scientists rubbed the cream containing JAK inhibitors onto the backs of bald mice, and found that hair began to grow within 10 days. Christiano was particularly surprised by how robust the hair growth in the sample mice actually was. There are very few compounds that can jumpstart hair follicle growth like JAK inhibitors.

The FDA has already approved a number of different JAK inhibitors, called ruxolitnib, Jakafi or tofacitinib. These drugs suppress the immune system, so they carry the risk of making a patient more susceptible to infections. Doctors think that by putting the chemicals in a topical cream, however, they can greatly reduce the drug’s effect elsewhere on the immune system and focus on hair follicles.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances. The press release from Columbia University can be found here.

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