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Can a Pfizer Rheumatoid Arthritis Pill Grow Hair?

Can a Pfizer Rheumatoid Arthritis Pill Grow Hair?

For Pfizer executives who pull their hair out seeking new ways to boost sales of existing medicines, a pair of Yale University researchers may have provided a tonic.

They gave the Xeljanz pill, approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis, to a 25-year-old man who suffers from alopecia universalis, a rare auto-immune disease characterized by a loss of hair on the scalp and body, as well as plaque psoriasis, a condition that causes scaly red areas of skin.

The researchers gambled that Xeljanz, which has been used successfully to treat psoriasis and, in mice, reversed alopecia areata, a less extreme form of alopecia universalis, might help the young man. They were right.

After being treated for two months, the psoriasis improved and, for the first time in seven years, the young man grew hair on his face or head. After eight months, he had a full head of hair without side effects or lab tests showing abnormalities. The patient each day was given the same amount of Xeljanz approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

“This is a huge step forward in the treatment of patients with this condition,” says Dr. Brett King, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine, one of two authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. He explains that patients can take high doses of steroids to regrow hair but only for a short time and results are modest.

“That’s been our only tool. But this condition has no treatment. The [Pfizer] drug was used as targeted therapy and the results were dramatic,” he continues, adding that this is the first instance in which Xeljanz was successfully used to treat alopecia areata. “I believe the results can be duplicated and will certainly do that work to prove or disprove my hypothesis.”

Indeed, there are clear limitations to cases involving just one patient, underscoring a need for further research. Toward that end, he submitted a request to Pfizer last week for research support–primarily in the form of providing the medicine–but hasn’t heard back. Pfizer wasn’t involved in the case study, Dr. King said.

A Pfizer spokeswoman wrote Pharmalot that the drug maker is “aware of the case study” and “cannot comment on the results.” She said Pfizer wasn’t involved in the research. There was no response when asked whether Pfizer would work with the Yale researchers or conduct research on its own. [UPDATE: Pfizer has a late-stage program under way for moderate-to-severe chronic plaque psoriasis].

Nonetheless, the findings suggest there may be a new opportunity for Pfizer to bolster sales of Xeljanz, which generated a disappointing $114 million in sales last year, the first full year the drug was available in the U.S. Drug makers, in general, constantly are seeking possibilities for new indications for existing medicines, a cheaper way of tapping new markets than developing new drugs from scratch.

Between 2.5 million and 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from alopecia-related conditions, ranging from spotty hair loss to the complete loss of body hair. But Dr. King cautions that it would be a leap to suggest that Xeljanz could be used to treat male pattern baldness, which afflicts a much larger number of people, since this is a different type of condition for which he didn’t study the drug.

“I firmly believe it would be wrong to promote this as a therapy for male pattern baldness. I used it specifically for the condition that I treated,” he says. “That said, I also truly believe this is such an enormous step forward that to think there might not be some connections found for treating more common causes of baldness would be, at the very least, unimaginative.”

So who knows? Given that Ian Read, Pfizer’s chief executive, is balding, there may be some impetus from the top, so to speak, to fund some research.