AUSTIN (Nexstar) — For about three decades, parts of Isha Dhar’s skin have lost color.  

“I’ve had vitiligo since I was five,” she said. “It happens, stops, happens, stops.”  

Vitiligo is a medical condition where patches in the skin lose pigment. A person who has vitiligo can either have one patch or multiple patches of lighter skin on their face, arms, legs or other parts of their body. It can also affect hair.  

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An employee at TeVido BioDevices shows a sample of skin cells inside a syringe. (Steffi Lee/Nexstar Media Group)

“It’s not completely understood what causes vitiligo, but it’s thought that the immune system does play a role in potentially getting some of these skin cells that cause pigment — or what gives your skin color — to stop working,” said Dr. Lia Gracey, MD, PhD, a dermatologist with Baylor Scott & White Health. “Vitiligo doesn’t currently have a cure and it can be difficult to treat because vitiligo can be progressive with more and more color loss.”  

There are currently several treatment options to help with vitiligo, including creams, phototherapy, surgery and oral medication. But there is no cure.  

“It’s not like it stops you from doing your regular work,” Dhar said. “It’s not a debilitating condition in any way. It doesn’t stop you from living your regular life.”  

But Dhar and dermatology experts say a lack of awareness can cause people to lose self-esteem and be self-conscious about their bodies. That’s where it can get tough.  

“You’re sort of, in some ways, different from every other person,” Dhar said. “It stands out and people stare. It is a very large lack of awareness and I feel like if more people knew about it, it might help to lessen the stares or questions.”  

In 2018, Winnie Harlow, a Canadian fashion model, was the first model with vitiligo to walk in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.   

“Any step toward a truly equal and diverse modeling industry is great, but for a huge brand like Victoria’s Secret to include models with skin conditions like vitiligo is a huge step to normalizing it in the entire industry,” she said in a Teen Vogue interview. “I hope that there’s many more in the future. We need to work toward diversity, not for the sake of it, but to make it the norm. And I hope that this is a big step toward that.”  

Austin biotechnology company developing treatment for vitiligo  

TeVido BioDevices, an Austin-based biotechnology startup, is working on a treatment called TruPigment to help patients with vitiligo. 

During a patient’s first visit, the doctor will take a small sample of the person’s healthy skin through a process called cellular grafting and will send this sample to TeVido BioDevices. The company then takes the living skin cells and places it in a liquid, which is the TruPigment, and then sends it back to the doctor’s office. 

CEO Laura Bosworth says doctors can use it treat an area almost five times the skin sample’s size and it’s expected that color will come back in about two months. 

“[The doctor] just takes off that little thin sheet of skin in the area that you’re planning to treat and then there’s a little syringe of your cells in a liquid,” she explained. “You squirt it on, spread it around and bandage it up.”

Dr. Ammar Ahmed, associate professor in the Division of Dermatology at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, is working with the four patients who are seeking TruPigment as a treatment for their vitiligo. Dhar is one of his patients. Ahmed is hopeful results can lead to some color coming back in her and others’ skin. Dr. Ahmed says there are some layers of challenges patients face in accessing any treatments for vitiligo, because insurance companies view it as a cosmetic condition, rather than medical. 

“Right now, these types of grafting procedures are generally not covered by insurance companies in the United States,” he explained. “For the first several patients we’ve done, we’ve done it at a discount because they’re the first patients to be using this. It is a significant investment to get it done.” 

Dhar says she’s tried other treatments, but didn’t see much improvement. She is hopeful this treatment will add another option for treatment and raise public awareness about the skin condition. 

“I felt like giving it a little bit of a nudge with the TeVido treatment would be a helpful thing,” she said. “I don’t know the results yet.” 

“Let’s see,” she added. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”