Kwame Baird’s always remembers scratching. From a very young age, he had eczema that gave him an itchy, bumpy rash. He tried everything to ease his agony, including slathering himself with petroleum jelly and soaking in oatmeal baths. These solutions would help for a bit. But then he’d start scratching again.
“I didn’t really find any relief. Really, temporary relief if anything at all,” Baird, 39 of the Bronx, told TODAY. “When I’m getting ready in the morning, I would have to account for the extra time it would take to put on lotion or Vaseline from head to toe. And then I would also have to be cognizant of where I was in case I needed to slip away to the bathroom to put on more lotion.”
But a new drug, upadacitinib, that he took in a clinical trial might be the answer for him and others like him who found no relief in available eczema treatments. A paper in the Lancet online showed reductions in symptoms in people with moderate and severe eczema in the stage 3 clinical trials. People involved in the trial took an oral medication once a day.
“At first it was surprising. I was just waiting for the dream to end, to be honest,” Baird said. “Just imagine going through your whole life with this condition, trying all types of things, and nothing works.”
Eczema and its treatments
Eczema, also known as dermatitis, is a skin condition that causes various types of skin swelling and irritation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Eczema sufferers often experience dry, itchy, bumpy skin or rashes on their hands, feet, the inside of their elbows or backs of their knees. Experts are unsure what causes it but suspect that genetic and environmental factors play a role. People with it often have asthma and allergies. Growing up, Baird had asthma.
“As a kid I was in the hospital from like age 3, at the earliest, for asthma and eczema at the same time,” he explained. “I eventually grew out of the asthma but the eczema just always stayed with me.”
Doctors advised him to stay dry and cool, which is often impossible. Baird works as a teacher and he attempted to hide his skin. Still, his students would see and wonder what was wrong.
“Young people are honest so they’ll tell you what you look like,” he said.
When the rashes start, Baird would try not to scratch, but sometimes he would in his sleep. Once, he scratched his eyebrow off and he has often scratched so much that it caused bleeding. The constant itchy rashes and scratching led to skin infections.
“It usually starts with three dots on my face or three dots on the back of my legs,” Baird said. “Whenever I feel a cluster of bumps, I know an infection is coming.”
Often the infections come with uncomfortable side effects.
“The itching, which leaves scratching and bleeding, skin cracking, oozing skin,” he said. “Over the years, I have had bumps from head to toe and fevers and chills. So it has been a lot.”
Dr. Emma Guttman-Yassky said that while eczema is a skin condition, it has wide-ranging impacts on people’s lives.
“When you have it on very large surfaces on the body then it really becomes an issue,” Guttman-Yassky, a professor and chair of the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told TODAY. “You cannot sleep. It affects your work. You are irritable. It is associated with increased accidents, divorces, lack of sleep. So it can really affect your entire life.”
Baird tried various treatments for eczema, including an injectable prescription, topical creams and even becoming a vegan to reduce inflammation. But he never experienced any long-term relief.
“Nothing really worked too well,” he said. “I was in two clinical trials … that never worked.”
A new chance
When Baird started a new clinical trial for upadacitinib, he noticed a difference after three months. But he was wary.
“The first thing I noticed was that my skin wasn’t as dry as it normally was. I used to have to put lotion on every half hour or so. But then I started thinking to myself, ‘When was the last time you put on lotion?’” he recalled. “Then the itching subsided.”
For the past two years, Baird has been taking the medication and he loves how well it works.
“I haven’t had skin infections, which is great," he said. "It’s also doing wonders for me as far as the mental health aspect as well as the confidence.”
Guttman-Yassky, also the lead author of the paper, said this drug provides relief quickly.
“Within days each person was tremendously better and the disease severity, so the redness, also gradually improves,” she said. “There is a quite rapid mechanism of action.”
While the results from the clinical trial seem promising, the drug is not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Guttman-Yassky hopes it will be approved this summer.
“This is a drug that offers a rapid response,” she said. “It increases options for patients.”