Regulators have given the green light to the first alopecia treatment that has been proven to regrow hair.
Trials have shown that taking the pill daily can almost completely reverse the condition that causes clump hair loss.
Called baricitinib, the drug is already in use on the NHS for a number of conditions, including arthritis, dermatitis and even severe Covid. It works by interrupting faulty signals that cause the immune system to attack hair follicles.
NHS spending officials will now review baricitinib and decide whether the health service will fund treatment for alopecia.
Charities and doctors celebrated the news and called on the NHS to pay for patients with the most severe form of alopecia to receive baricitinib as soon as possible.
“This is a very important step in the right direction for a group of patients who until now had no effective treatment options,” says Sue Schilling, chief executive of the charity Alopecia UK .
“Alopecia is an incredibly debilitating condition that leaves people feeling depressed, anxious and sometimes even suicidal. The NHS needs to fund this so patients can receive it for free.
HIGH PROFILE: Actress Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia
Trials have shown that taking one pill daily can almost completely reverse the alopecia that causes hair to fall out in clumps
Dr Paul Farrant, Consultant Dermatologist at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust, says: “Given the clear benefits, it is likely that people with the most severe form of alopecia will soon be able to access baricitinib.”
Alopecia is the term used to describe hair loss, which affects around 40% of women and 30% of men at some point in their lives.
About 100,000 Britons suffer from a condition called alopecia areata, where immune system cells attack hair follicles, for unknown reasons. Over a period of several weeks, the hair begins to come out in clumps, resulting in bald patches. Some people also lose eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair elsewhere on the body.
Matrix actress Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from the condition, which received worldwide attention in April when Oscar host comedian Chris Rock made a joke about it and was slapped on stage by her husband, Will Smith.
Steroid treatments can be prescribed – as a cream, injection into the scalp or as pills – and are effective in one in five patients. But taking steroid pills long term can significantly increase the risk of serious conditions such as type 2 diabetes, which is why doctors recommend that patients stop taking them after six weeks. Steroid creams can irritate the skin and cause agonizing migraines.
Baricitinib, part of a family of drugs called JAK inhibitors, can be taken daily and continued indefinitely. Side effects are usually minimal because, unlike steroids, this drug does not attack healthy immune cells.
Studies show that for a third of patients, baricitinib triggers hair regrowth within three months and continues to grow back. Patients who respond to treatment see 80% of their hair return. Some dermatology clinics are already offering patients baricitinib – at a cost of £1,000 a month – and charities fear the high price will force many people to buy the drug overseas.
Baricitinib, part of a family of drugs called JAK inhibitors, can be taken daily and continued indefinitely
“We’ve heard of a number of people buying it overseas and taking it without medical supervision,” says Schilling.
“Taking a drug like this in large doses can be dangerous, especially without supervision. This could be avoided if treatment is available on the NHS.
Dr. Farrant says he has administered baricitinib to more than 30 patients. “For those who respond, the effects can be transformative,” he says. “They range from no hair to full hair.”
One patient to benefit from baricitinib is Tyson Braun, 37, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States. He started losing his hair at the age of 25, after suffering from the flu. “At first it was just spots on my beard,” he says. “Then the hair on my head was coming out too. Within a year, I had no hair on my body.
Tyson tried a number of treatments without success. Then, two months ago, he received a prescription for baricitinib.
He says: “There are already hairs growing on my face, where I used to have a beard. And I even have a little on my head.
“Every day I feel like there’s more. I never expected to have hair again. My two sons only knew me bald. “It will take some explaining when it grows up even more.”
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