New vitiligo treatment may restore lost pigment for some patients

At 57, Perry Whaley has been living with vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that has caused him to lose pigment in his skin, for more than half his life.

Whaley said, if he had been offered a treatment years ago that could restore some color to his skin, he would have gone for it.

"I would have jumped on it in a heartbeat, because I tried makeup, I tried the steroids," Whaley said.

Nothing helped, and over the years, Whaley made peace with his skin.

He created the organization Vitiligo Man of Action to raise awareness the skin condition.

While Whaley is not a candidate for a new treatment for vitiligo because he has lost quite a bit of pigmentation, he said there is some excitement about the cream known as Opzelura.

"For the vitiligo community, it's a great hope, you know," Whaley said.  "But, for a person that has vitiligo, such as myself, where we're completely done, it's not an effective drug for us."

(Credit: INCYTE) (Supplied)

Opzelura is FDA-approved for patients 12 and older with the most common form of the skin disorder, nonsegmental vitiligo, which involves pigment loss on both sides of the body.

The cream can be used on patches of pigment loss on the face, neck, scalp and other areas that cover less than 10% of the skin surface.

Dr. Loren Krueger, an assistant professor at the Emory School of Medicine and clinical dermatologist for Emory Healthcare, said the cream is the first vitiligo treatment to actually restore lost pigment in some patients.

"Well, there's a lot of buzz," Dr. Krueger said. "I think people are kind of in love with the fact that, one, it's a topical medication.  So, you can do it at home. You can apply it. It's not in the steroid family."

In the research studies, it seemed to be most effecting in restoring pigment on the face and neck, with the hands and feed the most difficult areas to restore color.

"I think it's most appropriate when you have kind of discrete patches, those white patches, not necessarily covering the entire body, and not necessarily in a form that's happening rapidly," Dr. Krueger said.

In clinical studies, just 30% of patients who applied Opzelura twice a day for at least 6 months had at least 75% improvement in their facial discoloration.

About 15% experienced 90% improvement in pigmentation.

Dr. Krueger has several patients who have recently started using the cream, which sells for just over $2,000 a tube and is covered by many health insurance plans.

"They do warn us that there could be some acne and some itching associated with the cream, but so far my patients have had excellent tolerance, so not too many side effects," Krueger said.

Vitiligo can affect people of races, but those with dark skin have the most noticeable pigment loss.

In the Opzelura research studies, 82% of the volunteers identified as white, while 5% were Black and 4% were Asian.