Vitiligo Research

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Vitiligo Advancements and Discoveries

There has been an increase in the amount of research being undertaken in vitiligo over recent years and dermatologists have an improved understanding of the natural history and different types of the condition. Here you will find a brief summary of research into several areas, with references to the original research articles, for those of you who wish to follow these up.

Researchers are looking at:

  • The effectiveness of existing treatments;
  • Possible causes of vitiligo;
  • How the condition develops;
  • Segmental vitiligo;
  • The association of vitiligo with other conditions;
  • The psychological effects of vitiligo.

It is hoped that the improvements in scientific understanding will in future lead to more effective treatments for vitiligo.

Are psychological interventions important for vitiligo patients?

Yes, a survey of vitiligo patients and healthcare professionals found that psychological interventions are important for managing the impact of vitiligo on patients’ lives.

A survey was conducted to identify psychological interventions for vitiligo. The survey was funded by the UK Dermatology Clinical Trials Network and involved patients and health professionals. The survey recorded personal data and focused on the effect of vitiligo on normal life, as well as the most difficult problems faced by patients and which approaches would be helpful.

  • Patients with vitiligo reported key issues such as acceptance of their disease, the duration of the disease and managing embarrassment.
  • Other concerns were participating in sporting activities and exposure to sunlight.
  • Interventions considered useful by professionals to address these issues included cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness therapy.

Psychological interventions for vitiligo are a research priority, but there is little published on appropriate therapy from both patient and clinician perspectives. The unique survey referenced here is therefore of value to the future treatment of vitiligo patients.

Will piperine treat vitiligo?

Although promising results have been seen in cell and animal studies, and early work toward clinical trials in humans is underway, the effectiveness and safety of piperine as a treatment for vitiligo in humans has yet to be fully established.

Ongoing research is being conducted, but funding is needed to support further studies. Therefore, it is unclear at this time whether piperine will ultimately prove to be an effective treatment for vitiligo.

Amala Soumyanath led the research that discovered piperine as a potential treatment for vitiligo. In her own words, she shares the story of her research journey and provides an update on the latest developments. Become a member today and access more resources and stories like this.

How was piperine discovered as a potential treatment for vitiligo?

Piperine was discovered as a potential treatment for vitiligo through research and testing of herbal extracts, where a water extract of black pepper was found to stimulate melanocyte growth and dendrite formation. The compound responsible for this effect was identified as piperine, which could be developed for use in treating vitiligo.

How was piperine validated as a “lead” molecule for the treatment of vitiligo?

Piperine was validated as a “lead” molecule for the treatment of vitiligo through studies conducted at King’s College London. They tested extracts from various herbs and found that piperine from black pepper was the most effective at stimulating the growth of pigment cells. Further studies were conducted to make chemical variations (analogs) of piperine and two of these analogs showed good activity.

All three compounds, piperine, THP, and RCHP, were found to stimulate the growth of pigment cells in mice, causing their skin to visibly darken. These studies allowed the researchers to secure international patents for the use of piperine and its analogs to treat vitiligo.

How was piperine’s effectiveness and safety in treating vitiligo validated?

Piperine’s effectiveness and safety in treating vitiligo were validated through a detailed plan for a clinical trial of piperine in patients with vitiligo. Prior to the clinical study, experiments were conducted to investigate the effects of piperine on human pigment cells, including melanocytes from the uninvolved skin of a vitiligo patient.

Piperine was found to stimulate the replication of human melanocytes in culture and when grown within a reconstructed skin model. Colleagues in OHSU’s Biomedical Engineering and Dermatology departments used innovative optical methods to image pigmentation and melanocytes in the skin models.

What were its effects on human pigment cells and melanoma?

Experiments funded by AdPharma, Inc. showed that piperine has an inhibitory effect on cultured melanoma cells and prevents melanoma cell growth in a reconstructed full-skin model. To further study this aspect, the HGF mouse model of melanoma was introduced to OHSU.

The effects of piperine in this model are currently being studied with pilot funding from the Department of Dermatology’s Jesse Ettelson Fund for the Advancement of Dermatology Research. These ongoing studies are essential to establish the safety of piperine.

What is the status of piperine for treating vitiligo in humans?

In 2013, the appointment of Professor Sancy Leachman, a dermatologist and expert in pigment cell biology, gave a significant boost to the project of developing piperine as a new treatment for vitiligo. Dr. Pamela Cassidy and Eric Smith also joined the team, and a core group is working to bring this discovery to the clinic. The current status of piperine as a treatment for vitiligo in humans remains unclear.

Amala Soumyanath’s Personal and Professional Journey to Develop a Treatment for Vitiligo

Amala Soumyanath’s journey began when she received a phone call from Maxine Whitton, an MBE-awarded vitiligo service provider, sparking an idea to develop piperine as a potential treatment for vitiligo. With dedication and persistence, Amala’s knowledge of drug development processes led her to develop piperine to the point of being tested in humans.

Her personal experience with vitiligo, developing noticeable patches in 2006, fueled her drive to find a treatment for this difficult condition. Alongside a team of talented researchers at OHSU, they continue to evaluate piperine’s efficacy and understand its effects on melanocytes, with Dr. Sancy Leachman leading the project and Amala as the ongoing champion.

Is piperine the new treatment for vitiligo?

Amala Soumyanath and her team at OHSU are developing piperine as a potential treatment for vitiligo. A “proof of concept” human study demonstrating piperine’s safety and efficacy could attract large pharmaceutical companies to move forward with the project, but funding is needed. Donations of any size can make a real difference to the project’s progress. While piperine shows promise as a treatment for vitiligo, further research is required before it can be established as a new treatment.

How can you help?

The team at OHSU is reaching out to the general community for funding to support their ongoing studies on piperine for vitiligo at both the clinical and basic science levels. Donations of any size from those affected by vitiligo or anyone interested in supporting the research can be made online to the Vitiligo Research Fund.

Read Amala Soumyanath’s full story here.

What impact does vitiligo have on a person’s quality of life?

Vitiligo can have a moderate to severe impact on a person’s quality of life, including depression, stigmatization, and impaired sex lives. The location of the lesions and cultural values related to appearance and status may also play a role. Research has found that:

  • Quality of life is closely related to the patients’ apprehensions about their disease, psychosocial adjustment, and psychiatric morbidity.
  • British Asian women with vitiligo often feel visibly different and have experienced stigmatization due to cultural values related to appearance, status, and myths linked to the cause of the condition.
  • Quality of life impairment in women affected with vitiligo assessed using the DLQI was equal to the impairment caused by psoriasis.
  • Vitiligo had a negative impact on the sex lives of women with vitiligo.

To learn more about the impact vitiligo has on an individual and their quality of life you can find the full articles below:

Can thyroid issues cause vitiligo?

There is evidence to suggest that thyroid issues can be associated with vitiligo. The frequency of thyroid disease in vitiligo patients is higher compared to the general population, and it is recommended that all patients with vitiligo have their thyroid function checked.

In the course of their clinical work, dermatologists discovered:

  • the frequency of thyroid disease in vitiligo patients was 15.1%, 
  • autoimmune thyroid disease was 14.3% 
  • and the presence of thyroid-specific autoantibodies was 20.8%.

To learn more about the association between thyroid issues and vitiligo you can find the full article here.

Does vitiligo increase your risk of skin cancer?

Although patients with vitiligo have a tendency to burn in the sun, a survey conducted by a team from The Netherlands found that patients with vitiligo have a threefold lower probability of developing malignant melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. The reasons for this are not yet fully understood.

Read the entire survey here and learn more about this on BBC iPlayer.

What is segmental vitiligo?

Segmental vitiligo is a form of vitiligo that presents with patches distributed unilaterally and locally. It has been compared with a possible mosaic or neurogenic background, but its distribution pattern is not entirely similar to any other skin condition. Cutaneous mosaicism may be involved in segmental vitiligo. However, the underlying mechanism of segmental vitiligo is still unknown.

Learn more about the distribution pattern of segmental vitiligo here.

How is vitiligo classified?

Segmental vitiligo is classified separately from all other forms of vitiligo, with the term ‘vitiligo’ being used as an umbrella term for all non-segmental forms, including mixed vitiligo in which segmental and non-segmental vitiligo are combined and which is considered a subgroup of vitiligo.

Experts recommend that disease stability is best assessed based on the stability of individual lesions rather than the overall stability of the condition.

Read the entire article about the classification of vitiligo here.

What is the Koebner phenomenon in relation to vitiligo and how can it be assessed?

The Koebner phenomenon (KP) refers to the development of vitiligo within an area of skin that has been damaged by localised, often mild trauma (e.g. an injury). Dr. N van Geel and colleagues of Ghent have looked at this phenomenon. They developed a new assessment method for KP, taking into account both the history and clinical examination of people with vitiligo; this seems to be a useful and valuable tool for assessing KP in daily practice.

The results support the hypothesis that KP may be used to assess and predict the course of vitiligo (access the entire article here).

What is the relationship between Halo Nevi and vitiligo?

Halo nevi are common moles with a white ring around them, showing the sort of pigment loss that is seen in vitiligo. They may represent a distinct condition, but in some cases, they may be an initiating factor in the development of vitiligo, according to research by Dr. van Geel and researchers (access the entire article here).

What are the mechanisms of pathogenesis of vitiligo?

The pathogenesis of vitiligo is believed to involve oxidative stress, which leads to an imbalance between reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body’s ability to detoxify them. (Access the entire article here).

According to research (access the entire article here): 

  • Mitochondria within melanocytes and blood cells generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) that may be relevant in vitiligo development.
  • Modification of membrane lipid components in vitiligo cells may cause mitochondrial impairment and the production of intracellular ROS after exposure to mild stress.
  • Autoimmunity plays a role in the pathogenesis of vitiligo, with tyrosine hydroxylase identified as an autoantigen target.
  • Tyrosine hydroxylase antibodies are more frequent in people with active non-segmental vitiligo (23%) but not in the segmental type.

How does vitiligo affect the layers of skin?

Genetic studies show that susceptibility to vitiligo is related to proteins or parts of the pigment cell involved in the immune system (access the entire article here). Research from Dalian, China, reveals that alterations in skin biophysical properties, such as stratum corneum (SC) hydration, melanin and erythema index, are lower in vitiligo-affected skin (access the entire article here). 

However, no difference in skin surface acidity was observed, and the SC integrity was similar in involved and uninvolved areas. Barrier recovery in vitiligo-involved areas was significantly delayed compared to uninvolved areas.

What are the systemic treatment options for vitiligo?

It is difficult to find a systemic treatment for vitiligo at the moment (one that affects the whole body). Some of the commonly used systemic treatments for vitiligo include:

  • Ginkgo biloba – taking 60 mg of Ginkgo biloba BID was associated with a significant improvement in total Vitiligo Area Scoring Index (VASI) and Vitiligo European Task Force (VETF) scores, but more clinical trials are needed (access the entire article here).
  • Piperine – has been suggested as a potential treatment for vitiligo, yet only a few studies have been conducted and most have been on animals (access the entire article here).
  • Cosmetic camouflage – not only conceals the depigmented patches but has been shown to improve the quality of life in patients (access the entire article here)

What are the surgical treatment options for vitiligo?

Surgical treatment options for vitiligo involve transplanting melanocytes from normally pigmented skin to the depigmented areas and are only suitable for patients with stable vitiligo. It has been proven that suspending melanocytes in the patient’s own serum (plasma in the blood) can improve the effectiveness of the transplant (access the entire article here).

Another new procedure called ReCell involves taking a sample of normal skin, separating out the skin cells, and spraying them onto the vitiligo patches (access the entire article here). Studies comparing Recell with conventional transplantation have shown varying degrees of repigmentation, but it is not widely available in the UK (access the entire article here).

What are effective topical treatments and light therapies for vitiligo?

Creams or ointments, known as topical immunomodulators, are usually the first line of treatment for vitiligo. Topical tacrolimus and pimecrolimus have been found to be effective for localised vitiligo. Targeted narrow-band ultraviolet B (UVB) light treatment using the Excimer laser is also known to be effective, but not widely available. Other lasers such as the Q-switched ruby laser have been shown to induce depigmentation more quickly, but with more discomfort.

To learn more about effective topical treatments and light therapies for vitiligo you can find the full articles below: