Skin transplants improve color in vitiligo patients

Transplants of healthy skin from a patient’s own body can improve discoloration caused by vitiligo, researchers from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit reported Thursday.

The procedure was developed in Saudi Arabia, and the Ford researchers are the first U.S. team to attempt it, according to Dr. Iltefat Hamzavi, a Ford dermatologist. Although the study involved only about 30 patients, the pilot trial suggests that the procedure could be beneficial to many patients, he said.

Vitiligo is a disease that occurs when the body’s immune system kills cells called melanocytes in the skin. Melanocytes produce brown pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. When they are killed, the skin turns white, producing white patches that vary in size and location.

The white patches are most noticeable, for obvious reasons, in blacks and other people of color. About 1% of the world’s population is thought to suffer from it. One of the best known victims of the disorder was singer Michael Jackson.


Vitiligo is often treated with phototherapy and steroid creams, but none of the treatments are particularly effective. Some patients attempt to bleach the rest of their skin to a lighter color to make the disease less obvious.

The new approach was developed by Dr. Sanjeev Mulekar of the National Vitiligo Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Called melanocyte-keratinocytes transplantation or MKTP, the procedure involves collecting melanocyte cells from a healthy area of the skin, making them into a paste and applying them to the treatment area with a specially developed adhesive biologic dressing.

Hamzavi and his colleagues treated 28 patients ranging in age from 18 to 60. Most patients had one area treated, but four had two areas and one had three. The procedures took from 30 minutes to two hours, and patients went home the same day. The average size of the treated area was about the size of a credit card.

The researchers reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that, on average, the treated areas regained about 43% of their color within six months. In patients with localized vitiligo, the treated areas regained about 68% of their natural color.


“We believe this new treatment option offers hope to patients of color and those with vitiligo on one side of the body or in one area of the body,” Hamzavi said.

Get our weekly Health and Science newsletter

The latest health and science updates, breakthroughs, research, and the best in investigative and informative journalism.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.