The current treatment for alopecia is painful and long—this could change lives.
Alopecia is something that affects people of all ethnicities, all over the world, and unfortunately effective treatment has been scarce. But there's potentially good news on the horizon for hair loss suffers. The FDA recently approved a drug called Olumiant, a systemic treatment for alopecia areata, the autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. The drug works by interfering with the body’s confused messaging that tells it to attack hair follicles.
The world became instantly familiar with the word alopecia after the 2022 Oscars, where Will Smith infamously defended his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after Chris Rock made a joke about her baldness. Pinkett Smith has alopecia and decided to forego treatment and instead to simply shave her head. She talked about how painful the treatments are on a recent episode of Red Table Talk. On the episode, a dermatologist explained the localized treatment, which involves needle pricks directly into the scalp with a needle containing medication. The process is lengthy and painful, and requires frequent visits for these scalp jabs in an attempt to stave off further hair loss. It’s no wonder that many people decide to embrace balding and shave their head instead.
The newly approved drug has been on the market in the U.S. since 2018 as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and while it does have several mild to moderate side effects, one of them, hair regrowth, is what drew attention to it as a treatment for alopecia areata. The best news is that it's taken orally, and doesn’t involve any tiny jabs in the scalp.
In the FDA's announcement, Dr. Kendall Marcus, director of the Division of Dermatology and Dentistry in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said, “Access to safe and effective treatment options is crucial for the significant number of Americans affected by severe alopecia. Today's approval will help fulfill a significant unmet need for patients with severe alopecia areata."
In the clinical trials, between 32% and 35% of patients who received the higher of two tested doses had enough hair to cover 80% of their scalp after 36 weeks (compared with between 3% and 5% of patients who received a placebo). This definitely shows promise, despite observed side effects such as respiratory infections, acne, high cholesterol, headaches, fatigue, urinary tract infections and more. If you’ve ever watched a commercial for a new medication, these side effects shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should they derail the excitement of a medication that could boost so many people’s mental health.
To date, there hasn't really been an effective noninvasive treatment for alopecia areata and while the condition isn’t life threatening, the mental effects can be detrimental. On the episode of Red Table Talk, the mother of 12-year-old Rio Allred told of how her daughter died by suicide, which she believed was linked to the bullying she received due to her alopecia. Depression, anxiety and negative body image are all risks associated with having the hair loss condition, especially in women.
While this new treatment won't be effective on everyone and it comes with a daunting number of potential side effects, it certainly offers hope for many as an improvement over the standard "needle" treatment. Hopefully researchers will continue to make progress on treatments for alopecia that are readily available and safe.