Eczema breakthrough as unlikely cure for itch is found

An itch is as good as a scratch for scientists on the verge of a medical breakthrough as they look to take the itch out of eczema.

Researchers from Harvard have identified the bacteria responsible for the urge to scratch which feels satisfying but creates even more inflammation and damage to the eczema sufferer’s skin.

They believe, that with a little modification, a readily available treatment for blood clots can break the irritating cycle of itch, scratch, relief, repeat.

The pill called vorapaxar, which is approved in the US but not in the UK, could be turned into a topical cream that they hope stops the sensation of itchy skin reaching the brain.

Harvard medical school scientists have been working on a topical cream that takes away the urge to scratch

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Liwen Deng, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard who spearheaded the research, said: “We tested whether we could block the [nerve] receptor and reduce the itch in mice. We found it was really effective.”

About one in five children and one in ten adults suffer from eczema, a condition that causes dry and itchy patches of skin.

The condition tends to run in families, with symptoms flaring up in dry weather or when sufferers come into contact with an irritant, such as certain laundry detergents.

Isaac Chiu, associate professor of immunology at Harvard medical school, said: “We found that itching can be caused directly by a bacterial pathogen – Staphylococcus aureus – which is a very common microbe that’s found on about 30 per cent of people, mainly in the nose.”

The researchers, whose work is published in the scientific journal Cell, found when the bacterium is allowed to flourish it triggers a chain reaction leading to the urge to scratch.

First it releases an enzyme that latches on to nerves in the skin. This activates a protein on the nerve, which transmits itching signals from the skin to the brain.

“An itch is not just in our head,” said Chiu. “It is caused by specific nerves that send signals to the brain. An itch is actually pleasurable when you can scratch it. But that then causes more damage to the skin, which causes inflammation.”

The theory did not apply to all itches, Chiu added. Some could be caused by other microbes, fungi or viruses, while others were related to conditions such as liver disease.

“It just shows the mysteries of itch,” he said.


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