Eczema Research Roundup: August 2019

Today, 70% of the 18 million adults in the U.S. experience moderate-to-severe symptoms. Nearly half of people with eczema report that they "often" or "always" feel frustrated by their disease. One-third report that they spend up to three hours per day treating their disease. 

For those with mild eczema, topical treatments can be enough. But for those who still experience symptoms and flare-ups even with first-line treatments, tackling the disease gets more challenging. Patients may try out a range of lotion treatments, corticosteroids, and other emerging treatment options, but rore treatment is needed to find relief for everyone living with eczema.

We've gathered some of the latest research into the causes behind eczema, and how they can be applied to new treatment development. 

141 genes connected to eczema, asthma, and hay fever

A new study has discovered a total of 141 genes are connected to the risk of developing eczema, asthma, and hay fever – as many as 41 had never been connected to these diseases before.

As with many conditions, the risk of developing eczema is related to genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Not all patients with eczema go on to develop asthma and allergies as well, though many do. 

Researchers found that a large number of the genes were linked to all three conditions, suggesting that the risk of developing all three is related to genetic factors.

Further research may be used to develop drugs adapted to individual patients' genetic risks.

Can early eczema care stop the "atopic march"?

While specific genes may increase someone's risk of developing hay fever, allergies, and asthma after an eczema diagnosis, genes aren't necessarily destiny when it comes to these conditions. New research suggests that treating eczema effectively in babies can prevent the development of allergic diseases later in life. 

Dr. Donald Leung, PhD, head of pediatric allergy and clinical immunology at National Jewish Health, found in his research that the characteristic dry, cracked skin and itching in eczema may lead to the so-called "atopic march" – when allergies and asthma follow an eczema diagnosis. 

Scratching at the skin can break down the skin's barrier. If food particles are introduced into the body through the skin rather than through the digestive system, they're more likely to cause allergies, Leung said. The immune system may not stop there, leading to asthma and hay fever sometimes, too.

Creating a skin barrier early in eczema may help. Leung recommends the "soak and seal" approach: thoroughly moisturize the skin in a warm bath, then apply a moisturizing ointment to the skin afterward.

Early eczema care may offer a path toward preventing additional diagnoses, though more research is needed.

The brain's role in chronic itch 

For those living with eczema, itch can be the most frustrating and disruptive symptoms, particularly if it turns into chronic itch – when the sensation lasts for more than six months. Chronic itch is very difficult to treat.

Researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to learn more about how brain activity is related to itch and to see if it offered clues toward better treating the symptom.

There are two kinds of itch: chemical itch, such as a mosquito bite, is triggered by the activation of the histamine system. Mechanical itch feels like a brush or poking against your skin. 

The researchers discovered that there may be different neural pathways for different kinds of itch, and that those with chronic itch have a particularly sensitive neural pathway for mechanical itch. They also noticed that inhibitory interneurons, which control how much tickling of your skin causes you to itch, break down in patients with chronic itch. 

When researchers tried in a mouse model to turn off the neurons responsible for mechanical itch, the mice stopped scratching, though they continued to experience other sensations. 

This study may offer scientists a helpful pathway toward finding a treatment for chronic itch in eczema and other conditions.

New treatments for eczema can't move forward without volunteers. Clinical trials are looking for volunteers diagnosed with eczema – answer a few questions to learn about your options.