"Many people believe that vitiligo is a rare disease," says National Institutes of Health-supported researcher John E. Harris, M.D., Ph.D. "It's not. It's one of the most common diseases, affecting one in 100 people worldwide."
Decades of research by professors Caroline Le Poole, Ph.D., and Dr. Harris have helped to reveal the central underpinnings of this condition.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, the autoimmune nature of vitiligo began to surface. Since then researchers have been developing an increasingly more accurate map about underlying mechanisms. This is now allowing the development of several treatments to disrupt vitiligo.
Researching more treatments
While there's no cure for vitiligo yet, there are very good treatments available today. That said, Dr. Harris, Dr. Le Poole, and other researchers are working hard to find ones that are even more effective.
"There are now four clinical trials testing Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors," Dr. Harris notes. There were none just a few years ago.
"We're very close to having a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment," he adds.
JAK inhibitors work to prevent the signaling of specific proteins that cause vitiligo. This kind of targeted treatment is promising, but it's still not a cure. When people with vitiligo stop the drug, the disease comes right back, in the same places it was before.
Dr. Harris and Dr. Le Poole have recently learned that they may be able to stop memory cells from allowing the disease to come back.
"Now that would be a total game changer," Dr. Harris says. "It would mean we could treat people for a short time and get years' worth of benefits."
Dr. Le Poole says their research teams are also looking to start a clinical trial for an immunosuppressant, known as a heat shock protein, that could help reverse vitiligo.
"The treatment is meant to nip the development of the disease in the bud," says Dr. Le Poole. "There are new options on the horizon."
As research continues to advance, many people with vitiligo are also embracing, rather than treating, their patches. Celebrities, such as model Winnie Harlow, and other advocates have helped inspire confidence and spread awareness.
"People are seeing the beauty in their spots," Dr. Le Poole says. "Patients are more expressive than ever before. They're presenting their disease in an open way and are being empowered to accept their skin exactly how it is."
Dr. Le Poole and Dr. Harris still want to give people with vitiligo as many treatment options as possible, so they can choose what's best for them.
"We want to keep the research going and get to a point where people can decide whether they want to embrace their spots—or not," Dr. Le Poole adds.