Conference Coverage

JAK inhibitors emerge as promising alopecia treatment



– After Brett King, MD, PhD, and his wife and collaborator, Brittany G. Craiglow, MD, published an index case of oral tofacitinib reversing alopecia universalis in a 25-year-old male patient back in 2014 (J Invest Dermatol. 2014;134:2988-90), they received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from clinicians and patients.

“We also received quite a bit of media attention from around the world,” Dr. King recalled at the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.

After all, alopecia areata and its variants affect 1%-2% of the population and have a marked impact on health-related quality of life, with high rates of concomitant generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. “The health-related quality of life is similar to that of atopic dermatitis and psoriasis, and there are no reliably effective therapies, especially for severe disease,” he said. “If treating atopic dermatitis and psoriasis with systemic agents is appropriate, then certainly treating alopecia areata is, too.

Currently available Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors include tofacitinib (Xeljanz), ruxolitinib (Jakafi), and baricitinib (Olumiant). “These medicines are not [Food and Drug Administration] approved for alopecia areata, though tofacitinib was recently approved for psoriatic arthritis, and so we have formal entry of this medicine into dermatology for the first time,” said Dr. King, who is a dermatologist at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Potential adverse effects of JAKs include nasopharyngitis, headache, diarrhea, elevated cholesterol, uncommonly herpes zoster, cytopenias, transaminitis, and rarely non-melanoma skin cancer, solid organ malignancy and lymphoma, and GI perforation. Tofacitinib has an FDA black box warning regarding serious infections and malignancies, and baricitinib has these plus an additional warning about thrombosis.

In an open label, two-center trial that followed the index patient report, Dr. King and his associates enrolled 66 patients aged 19-35 years who had greater than 50% scalp hair loss for at least 6 months to receive tofacitinib 5 mg twice daily for 3 months (JCI Insight. 2016; 1[15]:e89776). A primary outcome of interest was regrowth of hair as measured by the percent change in Severity of Alopecia Tool (SALT) score. A SALT score of 100 indicates baldness, while a score of zero indicates no hair loss. Following 3 months of treatment, 32% of patients had a greater than 50% change in their SALT score, 32% had a change in the range of 5%-50%, while 36% had a change that was less than 5%.

“One of the interesting findings was that long duration of current episode of complete scalp hair loss was a negative predictor of treatment response, especially for those who have had hair loss greater than 10 years,” Dr. King said. Adverse events were “pretty bland,” with the most common being upper respiratory infection (17%), headache (8%), abdominal pain (8%), and acne (8%). Weight gain occurred in 1.5% of patients.

Next, Dr. King and colleagues reviewed the records of 90 patients aged 18 years or older who were treated with tofacitinib for at least 4 months (J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;76[1]:22-8). Patients had greater than 40% scalp hair loss, and the tofacitinib dose was up to 10 mg per day at the discretion of the physician. “About 43% of patients were treated with tofacitinib 5 mg” twice daily, Dr. King said. “Other patients had higher doses or the addition of prednisone for three doses to see if that would help.”

After treatment, 20% of patients had a greater than 90% change in their SALT score (complete scalp hair regrowth), while 38.4% had a change that ranged from 51%-90%. At the same time, 18% had a change in their SALT score that ranged from 6%-50%, while 23% had a change that was 5% or less. As observed in the earlier trial, researchers saw a negative correlation between duration of current episode of hair loss and latest percent change in SALT score.

“We believe that you have to catch people before they get to more than 10 years of complete scalp hair loss,” Dr. King said. “This is important for the pediatric age group. I just saw somebody who’s 13, and they’ve been bald for 8 years. You might make the argument that this person deserves treatment, at least for a period of time long enough to regrow their hair in order to reset the clock.”

The most common adverse events were acne and weight gain.

In a separate analysis, Dr. King, Dr. Craiglow, and Lucy Y. Liu, evaluated the use of tofacitinib for at least 2 months in 13 alopecia areata patients aged 12-17 years (J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;76[1]:29-32). They limited the analysis to those who had greater than 20% scalp hair loss, alopecia totalis, or alopecia universalis that was stable or worsening for 6 months or longer. Of the 13 patients, 9 (69%) were responders. Of the four non-responders, one had a very long duration of baldness. The percent change in SALT score was 93% overall, including 100% in the responder group over a median of 5 months and just 1% in the non-responder group over a median of 4 months. “This does not work every time,” Dr. King said.

While some preliminary studies of topical JAK inhibitors for alopecia areata show promise, it remains unclear if this approach will translate in a clinically meaningful way, he said. Clinical trials are currently under way.

Dr. King disclosed that he has received honoraria or consulting fees from Aclaris Therapeutics, Celgene, Concert Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Dermavant Sciences. He has also received funding support from The Ranjini and Ajay Poddar Resource Fund for Dermatologic Diseases Research.

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