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Amala Soumyanath’s personal and professional journey to develop a treatment for vitiligo

 Posted on 16th May 2023  3 minute read

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 a potential 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.

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.

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.

How can you help?

Donations of any size from those affected by vitiligo can be made online via our donation page.

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