The bald truth about ruxolitinib, the new ‘miracle cure’ for hair loss

Bald manBald man
Forlorn hope? Ruxolitinib has been found to regrow hair in a Columbia University trial. Photograph: Erik Dreyer/Getty Images
Tuesday 27 September 2016 16.57 BST Last modified on Thursday 29 September 2016 10.57 BST
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Name: Ruxolitinib.

Brand name: Jakavi.

Molecular formula: C17H18N6.

Full name: (3R)-3-cyclopentyl-3-(4-{7H-pyrrolo[2,3-d]pyrimidin-4-yl}pyrazol-1-yl)propanenitrile.

Let’s stick with ruxolitinib. Fine.

What is it? It’s a miracle!

In what way? It regrows people’s hair. New trial results from the Columbia University Medical Center show that three-quarters of the patients treated with the drug got most of their hair back. In fact, 77% of those who responded to the treatment got at least 95% of it back.

Hallelujah! The holy grail of drug research has been achieved! Homer Simpson can get back the key to the executive washroom, and someone’s going to be a billionaire! It’s not quite that miraculous.

Oh? Ruxolitinib was tested as a treatment for non-scarring alopecia areata, not androgenic alopecia.

Eh? So not the common pattern hair loss that affects about half of all men and a quarter of all women by the age of 50. It was used on people with “spot baldness”, the autoimmune disease that equally affects about one in 1,000 men and women.
The (not so) hairy problem of male pattern baldness
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Ah. Still, it’s exciting news for them, isn’t it? Definitely. Although …

What is it this time? The Columbia study was small.

How small? Twelve people. When I said three-quarters earlier, that meant nine of them. So it’s very encouraging, but it’s not a certainty that ruxolitinib will have the same effect on all people with spot baldness, or that it won’t have side-effects in a number of them.

What is this stuff anyway, and how does it work? Do you want the science answer?

Hell yeah! Ruxolitinib is a Janus kinase (or JAK) inhibitor, which means it prevents the JAK enzymes released by inflamed cells from affecting others. In this case, that’s hair follicles, but it is already used to treat some blood and bone marrow cancers.


That wasn’t so hard. No. So it doesn’t cure alopecia areata, but it does seem to help. And another study at Yale and Stanford showed similar results with a different JAK inhibitor, tofacitinib. Dr Angela Christiano, who took part in both, is certainly very excited. “We expect JAK inhibitors to have widespread utility across many forms of hair loss,” she said.

Including pattern baldness? They plan to look into that.

Do say: “Do exciting results in early trials always produce effective new drugs?”

Don’t say: “Um …”

• This article was amended on 28 September 2016. An earlier version referred to nine out 12 as 77%.


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