For decades I witnessed the relentless spread of #vitiligo over my face and body with a mixture of dread and fascination (until it had removed roughly 80% of my natural skin colour). If I’m honest, I felt more dread than fascination. But, in my more objective moments, I do remember being curious as to how on earth my body “decided” where each new white patch would appear, what shape and size it would be and how – most of the time - it replicated the same pattern on both sides of me so as to produce a kind of mirror image. This effect even created a bizarre impression in my mind of vitiligo as being, not so much a disease process, as a design process. It was as if I was gradually being taken over by a self-generating form of body art! I was intrigued as to how my skin “knew” what to do next and how it managed to maintain each new design that it created on my body. Realising that skin cells are in a constant state of reproduction and replacement, I wondered how it could be that the same type of cells that had spent years recreating my normal flesh colour could then switch, in certain areas, to reproducing a pure white version of themselves and accomplish this with almost perfect symmetry.
Later, when a combination of nutritional supplementation and sun exposure resulted in my relatively rapid and comprehensive #re-pigmentation, the dread I had felt earlier at the disappearance of my pigment was replaced with surprise, elation and utter relief (to the point of waxing poetical!). And my sense of fascination was, if anything, even greater than before. I was now left wondering at the fact that the same areas of skin that had been producing and reproducing pure white cells had now reverted to creating coloured ones again. Many of these areas had not done so for 20, 30, 40 years or more. And yet all these decades later they had begun to behave as they used to for no apparent reason, except that I was feeding my body high levels of certain nutrients. It was as if they had been suffering from a seemingly permanent state of amnesia only to finally, and miraculously, recover their #memory... or was this process actually the other way round? Was it the vitiligo patches that were doing the remembering?
Research teams at four separate laboratories (including a team led by Dr John Harris) have concluded that skin actually creates a “memory” of the locations of new vitiligo patches when they are first formed, meaning that it “knows” where to recreate them in the event that a re-pigmentation treatment produces only temporary results. This kind of short-lived success is quite common in cases where purely topical therapies are used and subsequently discontinued. If re-pigmentation is achieved without the internal mechanisms that lead to vitiligo also being addressed de-pigmentation tends to recur in exactly the same places and shapes as before once those treatments are stopped.
I experienced this to some extent myself (before my eventual recovery) on the odd occasion when a vitiligo patch would regain some pigment during the summer, almost disappearing, but then re-surface in exactly the same configuration some time later. Since then, I have been very fortunate in that I have not experienced any such relapses in my re-pigmentation. But I attribute this permanent recovery to the fact I used an internal, nutritional, approach which I have continued to follow ever since. And whenever I have used a topical therapy - such as UV exposure and, if and when needed, the antioxidant-rich gel Vitix - it has been in addition to nutritional supplementation, not instead of it.
Relevance for a vitiligo cure
The research teams investigating these “memory cells” within the skin have discovered that they are the reason our immune system attacks our pigment-producing cells in the seemingly bizarre way that it does. Their real job is to protect the skin from all future recurrences of harmful viral infections but, in vitiligo, they mistakenly identify the skin’s own pigment-producing cells for such infections and attack them. Although scientists have known for a while that cells possess something akin to memory, far as I can tell, this knowledge in relation to vitiligo is something quite new. Evidence that an inappropriate immune response lies behind autoimmune vitiligo (and a whole range of other conditions too) is not news. But, until now, no one had figured out that once cells have been affected by vitiligo they retain an in-built ability to “remember and file away for future reference” this initial occurrence in order to mount the same immune response in exactly the same locations again and again. Unless, of course, medicine finds some way to prevent them from doing so. Which is, as I understand it, the aim of this research. If researchers can find a way to make these cells “forget” to fight our pigment cells, then this would be one way to #cure- vitiligo.
This possibility is one of many currently being explored and is a reminder that we are living in very hopeful times. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to find natural ways to reverse and manage our vitiligo long-term may not feel the same urgency as many others do to get access to vitiligo drugs. And we may, with good reason, be wary of potential unknown side effects of new medications. But I have no doubt that effective pharmaceutical treatments are on their way and that, alongside existing medical and complementary therapies, these will improve the options available to everyone with vitiligo very significantly indeed.
My name is Caroline.