New treatment could reverse hair loss caused by an autoimmune skin disease

June 30, 2024

“This approach silences the entire immune system, offering relief from inflammation symptoms but leading to frequent recurrences. We saw great potential in utilizing the microneedle patch to reprogram the immune system locally,” Azzi says. In another set of experiments, the researchers grafted human skin onto mice with a humanized immune system. In these mice, the microneedle treatment also induced proliferation of regulatory T cells and a reduction in inflammation. Hyaluronic acid causes the needles to swell about tenfold after entering the skin, which allows them to absorb interstitial fluid containing biomolecules and immune cells from the skin.

Researchers at MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School have developed a potential new treatment for alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss and affects people of all ages, including children.

For most patients with this type of hair loss, there is no effective treatment. The team developed a microneedle patch that can be painlessly applied to the scalp and releases drugs that help to rebalance the immune response at the site, halting the autoimmune attack.

In a study of mice, the researchers found that this treatment allowed hair to regrow and dramatically reduced inflammation at the treatment site, while avoiding systemic immune effects elsewhere in the body. This strategy could also be adapted to treat other autoimmune skin diseases such as vitiligo, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis, the researchers say.

“This innovative approach marks a paradigm shift. Rather than suppressing the immune system, we’re now focusing on regulating it precisely at the site of antigen encounter to generate immune tolerance,” says Natalie Artzi, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an associate faculty member at the Wyss Institute of Harvard University.

Artzi and Jamil R. Azzi, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, are the senior authors of the new study, which appears in the journal Advanced Materials. Nour Younis, a Brigham and Women’s postdoc, and Nuria Puigmal, a Brigham and Women’s postdoc and former MIT research affiliate, are the lead authors of the paper.

The researchers are now working on launching a company to further develop the technology, led by Puigmal, who was recently awarded a Harvard Business School Blavatnik Fellowship.

Direct delivery

Alopecia areata, which affects more than 6 million Americans, occurs when the body’s own T cells attack hair follicles, leading the hair to fall out. The only treatment available to most patients — injections of immunosuppressant steroids into the scalp — is painful and patients often can’t tolerate it.

Some patients with alopecia areata and other autoimmune skin diseases can also be treated with immunosuppressant drugs that are given orally, but these drugs lead to widespread suppression of the immune system, which can have adverse side effects.

“This approach silences the entire immune system, offering relief from inflammation symptoms but leading to frequent recurrences. Moreover, it increases susceptibility to infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer,” Artzi says.

A few years ago, at a working group meeting in Washington, Artzi happened to be seated next to Azzi (the seating was alphabetical), an immunologist and transplant physican who was seeking new ways to deliver drugs directly to the skin to treat skin-related diseases.

Their conversation led to a new collaboration, and the two labs joined forces to work on a microneedle patch to deliver drugs to the skin. In 2021, they reported that such a patch can be used to prevent rejection following skin transplant. In the new study, they began applying this approach to autoimmune skin disorders.

“The skin is the only organ in our body that we can see and touch, and yet when it comes to drug delivery to the skin, we revert to systemic administration. We saw great potential in utilizing the microneedle patch to reprogram the immune system locally,” Azzi says.

The microneedle patches used in this study are made from hyaluronic acid crosslinked with polyethylene glycol (PEG), both of which are biocompatible and commonly used in medical applications. With this delivery method, drugs can pass through the tough outer layer of the epidermis, which can’t be penetrated by creams applied to the skin.

“This polymer formulation allows us to create highly durable needles capable of effectively penetrating the skin. Additionally, it gives us the flexibility to incorporate any desired drug,” Artzi says. For this study, the researchers loaded the patches with a combination of the cytokines IL-2 and CCL-22. Together, these immune molecules help to recruit regulatory T cells, which proliferate and help to tamp down inflammation. These cells also help the immune system learn to recognize that hair follicles are not foreign antigens, so that it will stop attacking them.

Hair regrowth

The researchers found that mice treated with this patch every other day for three weeks had many more regulatory T cells present at the site, along with a reduction in inflammation. Hair was able to regrow at those sites, and this growth was maintained for several weeks after the treatment ended. In these mice, there were no changes in the levels of regulatory T cells in the spleen or lymph nodes, suggesting that the treatment affected only the site where the patch was applied.

In another set of experiments, the researchers grafted human skin onto mice with a humanized immune system. In these mice, the microneedle treatment also induced proliferation of regulatory T cells and a reduction in inflammation.

The researchers designed the microneedle patches so that after releasing their drug payload, they can also collect samples that could be used to monitor the progress of the treatment. Hyaluronic acid causes the needles to swell about tenfold after entering the skin, which allows them to absorb interstitial fluid containing biomolecules and immune cells from the skin.

Following patch removal, researchers can analyze samples to measure levels of regulatory T cells and inflammation markers. This could prove valuable for monitoring future patients who may undergo this treatment.

The researchers now plan to further develop this approach for treating alopecia, and to expand into other autoimmune skin diseases.

The research was funded by the Ignite Fund and Shark Tank Fund awards from the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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