In A Yale Experiment, A Hairless Man Grows Hair

Kyle Rhodes visited Dr. Brett A. King at the Yale School of Medicine late last summer, seeking help for a severe case of psoriasis.

The Killingworth man, now 25, also had — still has — alopecia, the condition that causes a person's hair to fall out. Rhodes has the form of alopecia that affects all hair, including eyebrows, eyelashes and everything else: alopecia universalis, long considered untreatable.

Until now.

King put Rhodes on a high dose of tofacitinib citrate, a Pfizer drug under the brand name Xeljanz, approved for rheumatoid arthritis. He was aware that Pfizer had studied Xeljanz for psoriasis.

King was also aware that a researcher in New York had found that tofacitinib appeared to reverse the effects of alopecia in mice — though there was no published study of it.

Within weeks, Rhodes had hair. Not just a few tufts but a full head of sandy brown locks along with eyebrows, beard growth and hair wherever it ought to be.

He's still hirsute. And now that King has published the case in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, he's part of medical history.

"It feels great" to have hair, Rhodes said Monday. But he added, "I was pretty much content with not having any hair."

Others are decidedly not.

He and King appeared on CNN on Friday and Fox News on Monday, and over the weekend King received hundreds of emails from people suffering with alopecia and others who have lost their hair.

"There are some real kind of horror stories in these emails," said King, an assistant professor of dermatology on the Yale faculty.

When Rhodes returned to Yale with hair for his one-month checkup last fall, King said, "I was just elated.

"It's kind of the ultimate gift, the ultimate reward of being a doctor, especially in this case because I was really going out on a limb. So, to see him come back and realize that these dots that I had connected in the basic science were actually connectable dots … that is really extraordinary."

Rhodes, well adjusted as he was to his hairlessness, recalls taking off his hat at a dance when he was in seventh grade — and finding it full of his hair. He knew he had alopecia, but had not suffered such a trauma until then. "That was hard as a 12-year-old because it's such an important time in your whole body's development," he said.

His hair returned through high school but all of it fell out the week of his 18th birthday.

The sales potential is obvious; Pfizer discovered Viagra in 1995 when scientists at what was then its Groton global research headquarters noticed that a heart medication in development happened to reverse male erectile dysfunction, and the rest is sexual, and financial, history.

But no one, certainly not King, is suggesting that the Yale-trained medical doctor , who also holds a doctorate in chemistry, has achieved a discovery that will yield billions of dollars in new treatment revenues. With a single success story, it's not yet clear that tofacitinib will be a consistent, safe therapy for the various forms of alopecia.

Pfizer issued a cautious statement saying the company was aware of the finding. "This study was conducted independent of the company and we cannot comment on the results. Independent research advances medical and scientific knowledge about medical conditions and medicines."

And in no way is the drug applicable to the common form of hair loss that most men and many women experience with age. Alopecia, like arthritis and psoriasis, is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body attacks itself in some way.

"The hair follicle raises a distress signal, but there's no distress," King said. "That recruits the body's immune system to the hair follicle with subsequent loss of the hair … so what tofacitinib citrate does is, it turns off that distress signal."

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