Isha Dhar was about 5 years old when patches of her legs began losing pigment in the skin because of vitiligo.
Throughout her life, people have stared at her and asked rude questions.
The Austin woman has tried many treatments for the autoimmune disease including medications, photo therapy and surgical treatments, and recently she tried a skin cell grafting treatment called TruPigment. Typically people would have to travel to a handful of select specialized centers to have this treatment done.
Doctors have to have a lab with specialists who know how to process the skin tissue in order to offer this treatment. Dr. Ammar Ahmed, a dermatologist at Ascension’s Central Texas Center for Pigmentary Disorders inside the University of Texas Physicians Clinic, said it isn’t feasible for most dermatologists to offer it in their offices.
Now an Austin company has figured out a way to let doctors across the country offer individualized cellular grafting to their patients without doctors setting up their own labs.
Using overnight mail — or in the case of Ahmed’s patients like Dhar, messenger service — TeVido BioDevices becomes the lab for these doctors.
For TruPigment, doctors send to TeVido BioDevices a sample of healthy cells taken from a patient in an area that is not affected. TeVido then separates the skin structure from the healthy living cells and creates a transplant of living cells in a syringe that doctors can spread onto the affected area.
The samples and the treatment are surrounded by cold packs to keep them viable while they are shipped or driven to and from the lab.
Doctors need to prepare the area to receive what Bosworth calls “skin sauce,” and doctors will create a barrier of Vasoline to keep the sauce in place and apply a bandage, which comes off in about a week.
Laura Bosworth, CEO of TeVido Biodevices, likens TruPigment to sodding or reseeding your grass.
In about three days, Bosworth said, cells begin to graph to the skin site and start producing healthy pigment cells in that area. Usually people can notice something is happening in about one to two months, Bosworth said. The full effect happens in six to nine months.
Dhar had the transplant in early October and can see light pigment returning to the area, but it will take months before she will know how effective the treatment was.
Bosworth’s initial idea for setting up the lab and TruPigment treatment was to help with post-surgical breast cancer patients who want nipple reconstruction surgeries, but she says her investors felt it would take too long and be too risky to start with that. That treatment would include not just pigmentation but 3-D bioprinters and fat grafts.
Instead, she started with pigmentation and found a disease that needed pigmentation replacement.
Right now Ahmed has done the treatment on four local patients. TeVido BioDevices is in talks with 15 other clinics.
The treatment is for people who have vitiligo on small parts of their body, but not whole areas, Ahmed said, and it’s ideal for areas where other treatments have not worked. It also can’t be in an area where vitiligo is spreading.
The area, he said, can be as large as three hands. The donor site is usually an area that is hidden by clothing because it does leave a scar, and the donor site can be as small as one-fifth the size of the transplant site.
There is some tenderness at first in the donor site and in the transplant site because of the prep work.
Several patches can be treated at the same time, but it’s typically not covered by insurance. Each treatment costs between $2,000 and $4,000, but the hope is that this would be a permanent solution.
“If it is something that is causing you a lot of hurt and tension, the cost spending hopefully would be worth it,” Dhar said.
She didn’t know if she would do it again until she sees the final results. It hurt more than she was anticipating.
“I’m going to see how it goes,” she said. “Dr. Ahmed seemed optimistic.”
“It’s nice to have medical treatments and surgical treatments,” Ahmed said. “It’s not true that there is no treatment for vitiligo. We can create improvements.”