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John Harris lab identifies new pathway to reverse vitiligo

Discovery could lead to longer-lasting therapies

By Sarah Willey

UMass Medical School Communications

July 18, 2018
  John E. Harris, MD, PhD

John E. Harris, MD, PhD

John E. Harris, MD, PhD, and colleagues have made a promising discovery that could lead to therapies for vitiligo with longer-lasting effects, according to new research published in Science Translational Medicine on July 18.

Vitiligo develops when T cells attack and destroy skin cells, destroying pigment and leaving patches of the skin unpigmented. There are effective treatments for the condition, but the depigmentation returns in 40 percent of cases within the first year after treatment. Researchers have hypothesized that this recurrence could be due to the actions of a type of T cell called “resident memory T cells” (or TRMs). However, translating these findings into a more durable treatment for vitiligo has been challenging.

“Patients are a huge motivation for what we research,” said Dr. Harris, associate professor of dermatology and director of the UMass Medical School Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center. “Ultimately, we want to give vitiligo patients treatments that last a long time.”

In the paper, Jillian Richmond, PhD, instructor in dermatology and a member of the Harris lab, and colleagues analyzed lesions from vitiligo patients and found they contained TRMs that express components of a receptor for interleukin-15 (IL-15), an immune signaling molecule. Researchers administered an antibody that targets the IL-15 receptor for two weeks to mice with established vitiligo, and observed that the treatment restored pigmentation in the mice over the next two months.

“We are working with the Immune Tolerance Network, an NIH-supported national funding agency formed to conduct mechanistic studies that address immune tolerance in humans, to develop a clinical trial to determine whether targeting T cells could represent a viable therapeutic strategy for vitiligo patients,” Harris said.

The research was supported in part by the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
John Harris sheds light on treatments for vitiligo in WBZ-TV segment
UMass Medical School vitiligo expert discusses common skin condition
Telegram story raises awareness of vitiligo, an autoimmune disease afflicting 70 million people