New leukemia drug appears to restore color to gray hair

Wednesday, August 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ A new leukemia drug has been found to have a startling side effect: It appears to restore color to gray hair in some people.

The drug is not likely to find any use as a hair-coloring agent, though. It can be toxic to the liver and blood. It worked on only one in 10 gray-haired patients. And the manufacturer has shown no interest in exploiting its effect on hair.

French cancer researchers reported their finding in a letter to the editor in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

The medical team was testing imatinib mesylate, which is produced as Gleevec by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. of East Hanover, N.J. It was approved in the United States last year for treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer.

The French researchers gave the drug to 133 leukemia patients. Within two months, some patients with gray hair started regaining their original color.

Perhaps 10 percent of the gray patients got back some color, said cancer researcher Francois-Xavier Mahon of the University of Bordeaux.

He said the effect was especially surprising because the drug is thought to interfere with a gene that, when blocked, would make hair even more gray.

Gleevec, which is dispensed in capsules, is part of a new class of drugs that kill cancerous cells while leaving normal ones alone.

Mahon would not speculate on the whether the biological mechanism of this side effect could be discovered and exploited in a safer drug.

Novartis spokeswoman Gloria Stone said the company has heard similar reports of Gleevec patients regaining their previous hair color. But she said the company is not studying the coloring effect.