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5 Things to Know Vitiligo Research and Treatments

5 Things to Know Vitiligo Research and Treatments


Medically reviewed by Dr. John Harris, dermatologist and Director of the UMass Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center.

What’s the latest in vitiligo research and treatments? Living Dappled had the chance to find out in its first episode of “Ask the Experts” featuring Dr. John Harris, Director of the University of Massachusetts Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center.

Hosted on Living Dappled’s Facebook, the live interview highlighted five things to know about vitiligo research and treatments in 2018. A scientist and dermatologist, Dr. Harris called in from his office in the Worcester, Massachusetts research center and even gave a surprise tour at the end of the interview.

Find out what we learned from Dr. Harris below and view the video below to catch the full interview.

#1 Research in vitiligo has been going on for over 2,000 years

Over 2,000 years ago, patients in India were told to chew bavachee seeds and sit out in the sun. The seeds contained psoralen, a chemical used in a modern treatments for vitiligo. So while 2,000 years ago, people knew about vitiligo and were interested in treating it, it took another couple thousand years to for doctors and scientists to find out how it works and make treatment more efficient. The modern era of research started about 70 years ago when a couple of doctors and researchers took psoralen as a chemical and gave it to patients as a topical solution on the skin or as a pill and then gave them UVA light therapy – otherwise known as PUVA. First developed back in the fifties and sixties, PUVA has been replaced with UVB because PUVA has been shown to increase the risk of skin cancer and UVB works just as well or better, but doesn’t appear to increase the skin cancer risk.

Today, the pace has picked up and even more research is happening in large part due to an increased availability of tools and interest from pharmaceutical companies. Vitiligo specialty clinics are located all over the world with four or five in the United States. And vitiligo scientists and dermatologists are collaborating globally through organizations like the Global Vitiligo Foundation and conferences to combine efforts towards ultimately finding a cure.

#2 Vitiligo was only recently recognized as an autoimmune disease

Until recently, there was a lot of debate surrounding vitiligo as an autoimmune disease. In vitiligo, the melanocytes (pigment cells) are abnormal and attract the immune system, which ends up killing them. Unfortunately, the immune cells are attacking normal cells that aren’t causing problems. Although vitiligo is an autoimmune disease, there’s a lot more to the disease and investigations are continuing. It’s important to recognize that it’s autoimmune disease because there are a lot of treatments being developed that alter and modify the immune system, which means they could work for vitiligo. Building a foundation on these existing treatments that can intervene early and cut off the immune attack can save time on research and ultimately bring patients treatments sooner.

#3 Research can be categorized in three key ways – and they all matter

Research in vitiligo is broken down into three types. Basic research is a term used to describe research that happens with cells in a dish or on animal models, including mice. Translational research is done with humans and involves taking blood and skin samples for analysis. The final type is clinical research, which involves giving patients medicine to test new drugs or understand how vitiligo changes in people over time.

All three types of research are essential to fully understanding a disease. The University of Massachusetts Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center does all three types, integrating them to understand the big picture of vitiligo. Particularly, they’ve had success with translational research as more than 100 of their patients have been generous in donating blood and skin samples.

#4 The key pathway responsible for vitiligo has been identified – and that’s good news

Imagine going to bed at night and needing to turn off the lights in your room. Ideally, you would reach over and use the lamp next to your bed instead of going to the basement and shutting down the circuit breaker for the whole house. In the same way, you don’t want to shut down your entire immune system just to make your vitiligo better.

The good news is that doctors and scientists have now identified the key pathway responsible for vitiligo, which allows them to shut off the lights in your entire room – to continue with the metaphor – and the next wave of drugs will do that. The next step is to figure out how to turn off your lights with your single lamp switch – the most effective, safe way to treat vitiligo because it would have fewer side effects.

#5 New clinical trials for vitiligo have already started and more are coming

In the past 70 years, there have been only a couple clinical trials but the good news is that new trials are already underway and more are coming. Currently, the company Incyte is testing a new topical cream through a multicenter trial that will last two years.

With more clinical trials coming, doctors and scientists are looking to patients with vitiligo to get involved to help test the drugs. Patients can find out about clinical trials at or sign up to receive news and information directly from Dr. Harris at

Watch the full interview below:

View Comments (33)
  • 12 year daughter has vitiligo looking any direction for help slow this down or hear the latest things on vitiligo

  • Hello, Thank you very much for posting the Interview . I found living dappled by accident. My daughter was recently diagnosed with Vitiligo and it is devastating. I would like to offer her any support possible. We live in Los Angeles, however I would like to get second and third opinion of her condition. DO you have a list of doctors nationwide. I will contact Dr. Harris also. Thank you

      • Hi Erika,
        I am looking for recommendations for my 16 year old son who was diagnosed with vitiligo at age 10. We were prescribed steroid creams and they helped for a while and kept it from spreading. However they are no longer helping and he is developing white spots above his eyes and around his nose and mouth, knees, hands and elbows. Is there a doctor in the Chicago area that you can recommend? I really appreciate your blog and find it very helpful, thank you for your support.

  • I live in Vancouver, Wa. OHSU is 10 miles away in Portland, Ore.. my 8 year old has vitiligo on chest, shoulder, neck, and fore arm. It is becoming more noticeable. Is there a specialist in my are that I could contact? Or should I make appt for her to be seen

  • Hi Erika,

    I live in Georgia Republic ( Caucasus ) and I’m 53 years old
    I have noticed first spots 3 years ago. Now i have spots on the both hands and under the armpit.
    There is no treatment available in my country.
    Could you please, advise me how can I get proper treatment and appropriate medicines?

  • Hi Erika,

    I am a dad of a thirteen year old son who is undergoing diagnostic and believe it is vitiligo.

    I am trying to get all possible information to guide him on the right path.

    I know you are from US, just in case is there any doctors you would like to recommend in Victoria, Australia?


  • My name is Mark and I am a 31 year old male who has suffered from vitiligo since I was 11 years old. I can remember being a kid and finding out from Dermatologists that there was no treatment for vitiligo. I felt helpless and alone as they told me that I would need to stay out of the sun, and do my best to not worry about it, because stress could cause the disease to spread. I was told the disease was genetic, but I felt even more alone when I watched my two brothers progress through life, unaffected by the condition I was afflicted with. My parents also did not have Vitiligo, and my grandmother (who did have vitiligo) had passed away when I was a baby. I felt truly alone. No one understood the pain I felt. No one suffered like me. I did my best to keep it hidden. The shame and embarrassment associated with this disease is unimaginable to those who do not suffer from it. I Isolated myself and tried to numb the pain any way that I could. I am now doing my best to look at this condition in a positive way. I am slowly becoming thankful for the pain I have felt. The ability to empathize with others who suffer is something that I am truly grateful for. My understanding of what is truly important in life is becoming very clear to me. I just wanted to thank you for creating this place where people can go to share their struggle with one another. So much of my mental and emotional suffering comes when I worry about what my future will be with this disease. I am making a conscious effort to remain present and grateful for all of the gifts that I have been given. I understand that this was created for women who struggle with vitiligo, but it has helped me as well. You are incredibly strong and I admire you greatly.

    • Mark, thank you for taking the time to share your journey and the kind words. I felt like I was reading my own story – feeling alone, trying to numb the pain and eventually coming to a point of gratitude and perspective (while still struggling from time to time). You aren’t alone in worrying about what vitiligo will bring next, but I like your thoughts on staying grounded in the present. Such great advice. So glad you found Living Dappled – welcome to the community!

  • Hi Erika, my name is Barbara, I have suffered from vitiligo for over 15 years, I have loss jobs, & people are afraid to hire me, because they think that vitiligo is contagious. I wanted to know if you can recommend a great doctor in the Miami or Kendall area for zip code 33156 who treat vitiligo. I’am really desperate to find a good doctor in my area, do you also known any support group in Miami, Florida 33156 area th s you can recommend, I really appreciative any help in this matter, people can be so cruel & rude with their remark to my face, & also I have found a lot of strangers bullying me. Hopefully you can help me with this issue. Sincerely Barbara J. Carter

    • Barbara, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience – that’s heartbreaking and makes me realize how much work we have left to do in raising awareness and acceptance for vitiligo. The only Florida group I’m aware of is the American Vitiligo Foundation , which is based in Clearwater. They will likely be able to point you to both dermatologists and support groups. You can find their site at

  • Hi need help for my wife.. it just started on her breastsalmodt 8 months back not sure if it’s going to spread but the skin on her abdomen has become flackey and dry.. really scary not sure what to do

  • Hi need help for my wife.. it just started on her breastsalmodt 8 months back not sure if it’s going to spread but the skin on her abdomen has become flackey and dry.. really scary not sure what to do..

  • . I have looked for a cure for my vitiligo for 20 years. I have never given it up. I have always thought that there must be a solution, a cure for it; I only have to find it. Even in this case, faith is the most important. My vitiligo started when I was 14 years old. It took me 20 years to find a treatment method that was effective. A book series helped me to find it. I guess it is still available: link. :

  • My daughter has vitiligo for the past 3.5years. We have used tried herbal meds, steroids and UV light treatment. Her body is in aggressive stage. Is there anything new that is available. we living in South Australia.

  • Dear Erika i was tried so many traditional drugs but not cure completely also i am used Melanidin plus cream it gives a little improvement please help me as you can i am from African country (Ethiopia).
    with regards

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