Vitiligo of the skin has, in recent years, become globally celebrated thanks to public figures such as Canadian model Winnie Harlow.
It is thought to be present in approximately 0.5-1% of the world’s population and is broadly defined as an autoimmune condition affecting skin pigmentation.
Technically, there is currently no cure for Vitiligo. But treatment options are out there, and the latest ones on the market have caused a stir.
Ruxolitinib, sold under the brand name Opzelura, is already available in the United States. The cream can restore the skin’s natural color and eliminate the characteristic white patches that Vitiligo can cause.
Now, even European regulators are discussing whether to make it available. But the remedy has its fair share of controversy.
What is Vitiligo?
In essence, Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes a blemish-like loss of skin color anywhere on the body. It can also contribute to premature hair discoloration, including eyelashes and eyebrows.
While it appears across all ethnicities and genders, Vitiligo is often most noticeable for people with brown or black skin because the spots are usually white. This is because the autoimmune condition causes skin cells to stop producing melanin, the substance in our body that determines the color of our eyes, hair and skin.
Vitiligo is thought to be more likely to appear before the age of 30.
The symptoms are mostly physical, but of course they can also impact a person’s mental and emotional health. Additionally, it can make people prone to severe sunburn and increase the risk of hearing loss or vision problems.
What are the current treatment options available for Vitiligo?
As with many autoimmune conditions, which can be complex and manifest in many different ways, there is currently no cure for Vitiligo.
However, there are treatments readily available in Europe that can help minimize symptoms.
Vitamin D might be prescribed to help support normal body functions, especially if vitiligo prevents some people from being exposed to direct sunlight.
Skin camouflage creams are blended to match the natural skin color of the user. They help blend the white patches in with the rest of the skin, but tend to only last for about four days and less than a day on the face.
Steroid treatments can be applied like a cream and can help stop the spread of white patches or even restore some of the skin’s original color.
Phototherapy exposes the skin to ultraviolet rays. It’s actually not fully understood how ultraviolet treatments can help with certain skin conditions, but it has also shown positive results in other autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Why does ruxolitinib work?
Ruxolitinib is primarily used as a pill form in cancer treatments, especially bone marrow cancers.
The vitiligo cream version – marketed as Opzelura and currently available in the US at a list price of $2,000 (€1,887) for a tube – has been shown in studies to have the potential to restore skin pigmentation for some number of months.
However, the treatment also comes with a stark caveat. It suppresses the immune system, leaving users more likely to get illnesses like colds and flu. It has also been linked to increased cholesterol levels and low red blood cell counts.
Both European regulators and the UK’s National Health Service are currently debating whether to make it available to people living with the condition.