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Dermatology therapies evolve as disease knowledge and investment grow


For much of the past 50 years, many of the drugs used in dermatology have been adopted – and often adapted – from other specialties and used for dermatologic conditions.

Dr. William Eaglstein

Dr. William Eaglstein

“Almost every drug was more or less a hand-me-down” developed first for cancer or other diseases and found later, often serendipitously, to be useful for the skin, said William Eaglstein, MD, thinking back to the 1970s and recalling steroids, tetracyclines, methotrexate, and 5-flourouracil. “The perception always was that skin diseases weren’t serious, that the market was small.”

Much has changed. Knowledge about the pathophysiology of dermatologic diseases has exponentially increased, largely because of basic and translational research by dermatologist investigators, and “more and more companies are recognizing the importance of our diseases and the ability to get a return on investment,” said Dr. Eaglstein, past professor and chair of the departments of dermatology at the University of Miami and the University of Pittsburgh, who worked in industry after his academic career.

Psoriasis was a game changer, he and other dermatologists said in interviews. The tumor necrosis factor (TNF)–alpha blockers were first used for other indications, but their marked follow-on success in psoriasis “offered proof of concept clinically – showing that by targeting immune pathways in the skin we could achieve a clinical effect – and proof of concept commercially” that dermatology drugs are worth pursuing by pharmaceutical companies, said William Ju, MD, a cofounder and president of Advancing Innovation in Dermatology, a nonprofit organization that brings together stakeholders to develop novel dermatologic drugs and products.

This resulted in the approval of subsequent biologics, such as ustekinumab (Stelara) which inhibits the signaling of interleukin (IL)–12/IL-23, for psoriasis as their initial indication. Then, biologics targeting IL-17 followed this dermatology-first approach. “Researchers have continued further dissecting out the immunopathological pathways, and antibody drugs targeting IL-23p19 have been approved for psoriasis as the lead indication,” said Dr. Ju, a dermatologist who has worked in industry.

Seth Orlow, MD, PhD, who chairs the department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, remembers the 1970s through the 1990s as the “era of topicals” developed for dermatologic conditions – topical antifungals, topical corticosteroids, and topical retinoids. The next decade was characterized by formulation tweaks and few novel treatments for dermatology, said Dr. Orlow, who is also professor of pediatric dermatology and director of the program in cutaneous biology at New York University.

Seth Orlow, MD, PhD, Chair of the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health

Dr. Seth Orlow

Now, given the succession of psoriasis discoveries in the last decade, “large companies are interested in dermatology,” he said in an interview. “There’s an explosion of interest in atopic dermatitis. … and companies are dipping their toes in the water for alopecia areata and vitiligo. That’s amazing.”

Rare diseases like epidermolysis bullosa, ichthyosis, and basal cell nevus syndrome are getting attention as well, boosted by the Orphan Drug Act of 1983, in addition to increased research on disease pathways and growing appreciation of skin diseases. “There’s a lot under development, from small molecules to biologics to gene-based therapies,” Dr. Orlow commented.


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