Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have identified the immune cells responsible for destroying hair follicles in people with alopecia areata, a common autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, and have tested an FDA-approved drug that eliminated these immune cells and restored hair growth in a small number of patients. The results appear online on August 17, 2014 in Nature Medicine. In the paper, the researchers report initial results from an ongoing clinical trial of the drug, which has produced complete hair regrowth in several patients with moderate-to-severe alopecia areata. Data from three participants appear in the current paper; each patient experienced total hair regrowth within five months of the start of treatment. "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," said Raphael Clynes, M.D., Ph.D., who led the research, along with Angela M. Christiano (image), Ph.D., professor in the Departments of Dermatology and of Genetics and Development at CUMC. Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disease that causes disfiguring hair loss. The disease can occur at any age and affects men and women equally. Hair is often lost in patches on the scalp, but in some patients it also causes loss of facial and body hair. There are no known treatments that can completely restore hair, and patients with the disease experience significant psychological stress and emotional suffering. Scientists have known for decades that hair loss in alopecia areata occurs when cells from the immune system surround and attack the base of the hair follicle, causing the hair to fall out and enter a dormant state. Until now, the specific type of cell responsible for the attack had been a mystery.
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