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"Speaking of Vitiligo..."

Happy New Year!

Posted On: Tuesday, December 31, 2019 Posted By: John E. Harris Tags: Vitiligo, Vitiligo Research, Vitiligo Treatment

As 2019 winds to a close, I am reflecting on everything that has happened in the past year, and it’s almost too much to name! At the risk of sounding like my Thanksgiving post, there is much to be thankful for. I celebrated Christmas with my family and friends, and as always, they asked, “How’s the lab?” and “How’s work?”. The answer was a resounding, “Everything is great!”, and I meant it. Here’s why:

Vitiligo Clinic and Research Team

The team I’ve assembled to conduct research on vitiligo has never been larger, and they are an outstanding group of individuals. They are as passionate as I am about finding a cure for vitiligo, and they can be found at all hours, all days, working on it.

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Our team includes people from all levels of training, from an undergraduate degree, to students working on their PhD and MD/PhD degrees, PhD postdoctoral fellows, MD clinical fellows, Faculty Instructors, and more. Two of our students graduated this year and, of course, both of their theses were on vitiligo. James Strassner developed a new technique to study human skin and helped generate some exciting new data from my patient volunteers. He is now back in medical school on his way to an MD/PhD degree. Kingsley Essien discovered how regulatory T cells get into the skin and how they help to slow down autoimmunity in vitiligo. He is now a postdoctoral fellow working with my new company Villaris to create a new, durable treatment for vitiligo. 

Research Support

We were incredibly blessed to receive a large donation at the beginning of the year to help speed things up in our pursuit of a cure, and this is why we have the ability to work on many new ideas that we couldn’t before. This support came from an anonymous donor, and I wish I knew more about him or her so that I could give proper thanks. But we respect the wishes of this generous individual and hope we have the opportunity to meet someday (if we haven’t already)! We used this donation to support two new projects that we believe could lead to many new treatment options and possibly the cure we have all wanted. I will keep you updated on the project as it progresses, but I already know that it will keep us very busy for many years to come.

Continual Improvement in Clinical Trials

I had the privilege of playing a senior role in the first large, randomized clinical trial to test ruxolitinib cream as new treatment for vitiligo. We enrolled 157 subjects into this Phase II trial at 26 sites across the US and now the data from the entire first year of treatment is available. You can read details of the results from 26 weeks here and from 1 year here. In summary, the results were really good, suggesting that the treatment is effective to reverse vitiligo. Because of these results, Incyte has initiated a Phase III trial worldwide, with the goal of gaining FDA approval so that it can be prescribed by your doctor for vitiligo. In addition, 3 other trials were active this year, sponsored by Pfizer, Aclaris, and Dermavant, all testing different JAK inhibitors as treatments for vitiligo. The more trials being conducted, the better the opportunities to discover improved treatments for vitiligo! 

Clinic is Growing!

We added a new faculty member to our Vitiligo Clinic, Dr. Mehdi Rashighi. You can read more about this here. He is now seeing vitiligo patients together with me, which doubles the number of vitiligo patients we can see every week and shortens the long wait for patients who want to be seen in the clinic, which was at a full year. His patients have been very happy seeing him for their care, as I knew they would – he’s a great dermatologist and vitiligo expert! In addition to us, Dr. Houk also sees vitiligo patients for medical treatment, while Dr. Goldberg and Dr. Mahmoud perform the Melanocyte-Keratinocyte Transplant Procedure (MKTP) for patients who qualify. You can read about MKTP here.

World Vitiligo Awereness Events

We celebrated World Vitiligo Day in Houston, Texas, hosted by Diane Tribitt and her group, the Houston Vitiligo Awareness Movement (HVAM). They did a great job and a huge number of attendees joined together for the conference. You can read more about it here, and consider joining WVD in Minneapolis, MN in 2020! You can read about next year’s conference and register at https://2020.wvdusa.org. In addition to the WVD conference, the leadership at the Global Vitiligo Foundation (GVF) came together for a vision/planning retreat in Detroit, MI, this month on the weekend of December 6th. We had a great time together, but also worked hard to determine the best way to improve the lives of individuals living with vitiligo. We were working on a 3-5-year timeline, and for a peek at where we’re headed, you can read our Mission and Vision statements on the GVF website - https://globalvitiligofoundation.org.

New places, New people, Old friends, and My Favorite Subject - Vitiligo

I personally was honored to receive two recognitions this year. First, I was inducted into the American Society of Clinical Investigation (ASCI), a prestigious society for physician scientists who conduct research to combat human disease. Second, I received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from the President of the United States. This is given to a select number of scientists and engineers who have made important contributions through their research, and who show promise in their future work. At the ceremony in Washington DC I shared a stage with other scientists like me, but also engineers from NASA, the Central Intelligence Agency, and others.

I also spent a weekend with good friends in dermatology to write questions for the American Board of Dermatology Exam, the licensing exam that dermatology residents need to pass to become Board Certified Dermatologists and treat patients with skin diseases. Coincidentally, I also had to recertify for my own Board Certification by taking a licensing exam in the spring that must be taken every 10 years (yes, I’m now 10 years out of my training). Of course, the exam isn’t just on vitiligo, so I had to remember everything I learned about the other 3000 diseases that affect the skin as well. I’m happy to say that I successfully passed the exam, so I am still a Board-Certified Dermatologist – I’ve still got it!

This year I continued to travel the world to talk about vitiligo, including how to diagnose and treat the disease, as well as about our research to find better treatments and a cure. Some of the places I visited included Morocco, Italy, Canada, and all over the US. Next year I’ll visit Japan (twice), S. Korea, Taiwan, France, and Hawaii, among other places. These opportunities represent just one of the reasons that I love my job – I get to see new places, meet new people, spend time with old friends, and talk about my favorite subject, vitiligo!

Finally, I am excited to have founded a company completely dedicated to finding a long-lasting, durable treatment for vitiligo. This allows me and our management team to directly pursue treatments for vitiligo, rather than depend on larger companies to do so. The company is called Villaris Therapeutics, and you can learn more about the team we assembled and approach we’re taking on the website at https://villaristherapeutics.com. The leadership includes Dr. Andrea Epperly as CEO, who has excellent experience in drug development in pharmaceuticals, a strong board of directors, and a highly respected scientific advisory board. We have been working very hard since the company was founded less than a year ago, and we have already made outstanding progress. On top of that, we’ve had a lot of fun working together to develop our drug, and I couldn’t have asked for a better team or process. I know many of you have asked for updates on progress, which I will continue to provide as I can. 

So that’s 2019, a whirlwind of a year. I expect the same and more for 2020 and am bracing myself for the travel and work ahead. But it’s worthwhile, because we need to talk about what we’re doing to show people that vitiligo is treatable. And we need to develop improved treatments, so that more people can get better. And we want to find a cure, so that people don’t have to deal with it anymore, if that’s their desire. So, I’ll brace and meet the challenge head on, while having fun the whole time. Thank you all for reading, and for all of your support. It really means a lot to me.