West Houston Dermatology

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Vitiligo and Genetics

Gene Therpay

Vitiligo is a pigmentary disease of the skin where the skin gradually loses its color in patches, and though it does not cause the patient physical illness, it can be emotionally taxing to the patient – especially when depigmentation occurs in visible areas of the skin such as the face.  Though the precise cause of vitiligo remains unknown, the best medical researchers believe it is an autoimmune disorder where the patient’s immune system attacks the melanocytes, which are cells that produce skin pigment.  Somewhere between 10%-30% of patients report that someone else in his or her family suffers from this skin condition, so there appears some risk of inheriting vitiligo if a close family member also has the condition.  Though a person may carry the gene for vitiligo, this skin disease is thought to be multi-factorial in nature – meaning that just because the person carries the gene does not mean that one will develop the disease without some other triggering environmental event.  Environmental factors are thought to include extreme stress, trauma to the skin, pregnancy, and exposure to pathogens and/or chemical compounds.  Sometimes vitiligo is “idiopathic”, meaning the instigating trigger is unknown.  Currently there is no cure for vitiligo, but there are several treatments available through your dermatologists who specialize in this disease.  Though dermatology is the medical discipline on the forefront of treating this disease, physicians and researchers who study the human genome are also involved by locating what are called “susceptibility” genes and studying those gene’s behavior in relation to various triggers.  Having this information may help scientists to identify patients who are susceptible and help them avoid environmental triggers where feasible.  Though medical research is underway to use gene therapy to manipulate human genetic code to treat vitiligo is underway, it remains in the very early stages.  Houston dermatologist Stephen Mahoney, M.D. is a national expert in treating patients to manage this disease.