New measurement tool to help treat vitiligo

Superstar Michael Jackson and more than 40 million others who suffer from a de-pigmenting skin disease now have a better way to predict the effectiveness of treatment, thanks to a clinical measurement tool created by a University of British Columbia dermatology researcher.

Prof. Harvey Lui, who is also a researcher at Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI), has developed the first standardized quantitative measure of the effectiveness of treating vitiligo, a disfiguring condition where pigment is lost from the skin, leaving white patches.

Called the Vitiligo Area Scoring Index (VASI), the tool is a simple scale that allows patients and clinicians to speak a common language when discussing how vitiligo will respond to treatment. The condition rarely responds completely to treatment, so any therapy must be evaluated according to the degree of repigmentation that can be expected. A similar index is used to evaluate psoriasis treatment.

“Doctors haven’t had a common yardstick until now so we couldn’t compare treatments in a scientific way,” says Lui, head of UBC’s division of dermatology. “This tool takes the guesswork out of predicting treatment outcomes. It will give both doctor and patient a better idea of what to expect from a variety of treatment options and help them choose the best one.”

Lui and his research team tested VASI’s usefulness in a controlled six-month study of 22 patients who received a form of ultraviolet light therapy called narrowband UV-B. Using the VASI index, he found that the extent of repigmentation on the treated side was almost 43 per cent and that legs, trunk, and arms were much more likely to repigment than feet and hands.

“This type of phototherapy works, however, it is a long and arduous treatment process and we hope our data will prove useful in helping patients make an informed decision,” says Lui. “Better treatments are still needed.”

Vitiligo, which affects about 40-50 million people worldwide, is a pigmentation disorder that destroys melanocytes -- the cells that make pigment. The disorder affects all races and both sexes equally and the cause is unknown. Jackson has reported that he suffers from vitiligo.

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