Promising treatment for vitiligo skin condition

Shahanaj Akter first noticed a white spot above her eyebrow when she was pregnant more than a decade ago. By the time she had her baby, the discoloration had spread all over her face, chest, and hands.

"I wasn't happy. People say, 'Accept yourself, whatever you look like,' but I tried that," Akter said. "Inside, that doesn’t work. I just feel sad, deeply."

Akter, 34, tried countless treatments for a skin condition known as vitiligo including creams and liquid nitrogen. She was eventually referred to Yale Dermatology and introduced to Dr. Brett King about one year ago. She says she is so happy she met Dr. King.

Vitiligo is a skin discoloration that can dramatically change a person's appearance. But a new treatment can restore that pigment and their self-confidence.

Dr. King and his team of researchers successfully found a way to speed up the restoration of natural skin tones. Phototherapy is a common method of treatment for skin conditions but it is a slow process. Dr. King is altering that by administering two treatments in tandem.

The oral medication Xeljanz prevents the body's immune system from killing pigment-making cells while the narrowband UVB light stimulates those cells to produce the skin pigment, according to Dr. King. The combination of treatments has only been used on two patients but the results have been dramatic. (The drug Xeljanz is normally prescribed for treating rheumatoid arthritis. 

Akter takes two pills daily and pairs that with short UV sessions twice a week. She hopes the drug is soon approved for treating vitiligo; because as someone living with the disease and dealing with the emotional pain it often brings, she said this is life-changing.

"I've been there, I go through those days. I just don’t want anyone to go through that," she said. "They should approve the medicine and someone should have the treatment. You know, get well."

While the progress made on treating vitiligo is promising, there is still no cure. Until one is found, Dr. King's team at Yale-New Haven Health will continue to work to find a course of treatment that can mitigate the disease's effects.