Breakthrough patch could regrow hair lost to autoimmune disease

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Researchers from MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School have developed a groundbreaking treatment for alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.

This new treatment uses a microneedle patch that is painlessly applied to the scalp, potentially offering a significant improvement over current painful and often ineffective treatments.

Alopecia areata affects millions, leading to significant hair loss when the body’s immune cells mistakenly attack hair follicles.

Currently, the primary treatments involve painful scalp injections or oral medications that suppress the immune system across the entire body, which can lead to severe side effects and frequent disease relapses.

The new approach, detailed in a study published in the journal Advanced Materials, involves a microneedle patch that delivers drugs directly into the scalp.

This targets the immune response right where it’s needed, without dampening the body’s overall immune system.

This method could revolutionize treatment not only for hair loss but also for other skin conditions like vitiligo, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis.

The microneedle patches are made from substances commonly used in medical treatments, hyaluronic acid and polyethylene glycol, ensuring they are safe and effective at penetrating the skin to deliver medication.

For this study, the patches were loaded with specific immune molecules that help recalibrate the immune system to stop attacking the hair follicles.

In experiments with mice, applying the patch every other day for three weeks resulted in a noticeable increase in regulatory T cells at the treatment site and a significant reduction in inflammation. Remarkably, hair began to regrow where the patches were applied, and this new hair growth persisted for several weeks even after treatment stopped.

Importantly, these effects were localized to the treatment area, without affecting the immune system elsewhere in the body.

The research team also conducted tests on mice with human skin grafts to simulate how the treatment might work in humans. These experiments also showed promising results, with increased regulatory T cells and decreased inflammation observed.

An innovative aspect of these microneedle patches is that once they release their drug payload, they can also collect samples from the skin.

These samples can be analyzed to monitor the treatment’s progress, offering a way to fine-tune therapy for individual patients.

The lead researchers, Natalie Artzi and Jamil R. Azzi, and their teams are now planning to start a company to further develop this technology, with the support of a Harvard Business School Blavatnik Fellowship.

Their goal is to bring this treatment to patients who suffer from alopecia areata and potentially other autoimmune diseases affecting the skin.

This research not only opens a new frontier in treating hair loss but also exemplifies a shift in how medical treatments can be approached: by targeting specific sites of disease without compromising the body’s overall health.

This could lead to safer, more effective treatments for a variety of diseases in the future. The study was supported by awards from the Ignite Fund and Shark Tank Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.