Right on the Head: JAK Inhibitors May Reverse Hair Loss

JAK inhibitors, used to treat blood and autoimmune disorders, also reverse one type of hair loss.

OUR HAIR IS A large part of our identity. When asked to describe someone, their hair is usually one of the first descriptors we use. Losing our hair can be traumatic regardless of the cause, and for people who have cancer, alopecia (hair loss) can trigger feelings of lack of control in an already overwhelming situation.

Until recently, there hasn’t been much to offer for the treatment of alopecia. For those who want to prevent hair loss while undergoing chemotherapy, scalp cooling caps that chill hair follicles, protecting them from chemotherapy damage, are becoming more widely available. And taking Biotin, or vitamin B7, during chemotherapy may help to preserve hair if the anticancer drug tends to cause only partial hair loss.

But now there’s also promising news for some who have already lost hair. Over the past few years, evidence has been accumulating that a class of medications called Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors — used to help treat myeloproliferative disorders such as polycythemia vera, as well as other conditions — can also help resolve alopecia areata (AA), hair loss caused by an immune system malfunction. This condition affects some people treated for cancer, but also many others.

The last two-and-a-half years have revolutionized treatment for this form of hair loss, which can cause people enormous despair, says Brett Andrew King, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of dermatology and medical director of Yale Dermatology-Middlebury in Connecticut, in an interview with CURE ®.

“Alopecia areata affects (at least) 3 to 5 million Americans and 100 million people worldwide,” he says. “Three years ago, there (were few) treatments for severe disease, and now there’s increasing acceptance that a relatively new class of medications will effectively treat the condition.”


Experts reiterate, though, that JAK inhibitors won’t treat all types of alopecia. “It’s important to note that, so far, we know that the JAK inhibitors are only useful for those types of hair loss that are mediated by inflammation,” says Mario E. Lacouture, M.D., director of the Oncodermatology Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. This type of hair loss occurs in 1 to 2 percent of the population, he explains, including many patients who have received chemotherapies. In addition, some cancer treatments, such as the new immunotherapies, result in this type of hair loss in one out of 50 people. “The JAK inhibitors would have a potential benefit in some cancer patients and survivors,” Lacouture says. However, they are not expected to work in cases where chemotherapy is the direct cause of hair loss.

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