UC Berkeley researchers discover possible solution to eczema

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UC Berkeley researchers have discovered blocking certain nerve cells can relieve symptoms of eczema, a skin condition that causes itching and redness.

The team of researchers found that the neurons that trigger itching, a symptom commonly seen in eczema, are activated directly by TSLP, a small molecule secreted by cells in the epidermis.

The results of the study could open a new area for therapeutic intervention, said Diana Bautista, a campus assistant professor of cell and developmental biology who led the research, which started about three years ago. UC Berkeley graduate student Sarah Wilson, doctoral student Lydia The and several undergraduates also contributed to the study.

One of the experiments involved blocking nerve cells in mice and human cell culture. By blocking nerve cells in mice, researchers were able to prevent the itching symptom.

According to The, one in 10 people suffer from eczema, and effective over-the-counter remedies have yet to be found. Allergic itching is alleviated using over-the-counter antihistamines, which stop allergy symptoms. Children who develop severe eczema at an early age have an 80 percent chance of developing asthma, Bautista said.

Bautista hopes drug developers can use her research to screen for new drugs that can block TRPA1, an ion channel that senses pain and cold sensations, which would then block TSLP and stop the itch.

“I think that the number of people who suffer from chronic itch is on the rise, and all of the drugs on the market are ineffective,” said Bautista, who has dedicated four years to studying itch and touch. “Chronic itch is such a big problem, and little is known about the molecular mechanism.”

Currently, eczema is treated using over-the-counter creams, but patients also can seek holistic treatment, which involves acupuncture and herbal medicines.

“Usually, I get desperate patients who have been through everything else and haven’t had results,” said Jill Stevens, a licensed acupuncturist at Whole Family Wellness Center in Emeryville.

Stevens said she treats eczema patients by stimulating acupuncture points, using Chinese herbs and changing their diets.

“We get really great results when we follow that protocol,” she said.

The next step for the researchers is to run clinical trials, which Bautista hopes will yield positive results in humans.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].