WEDNESDAY, Dec. 17 (HealthDay News) -- The discovery of a protein that seems to contribute to the development of eczema may one day lead to preventive treatments for the itchy and often painful skin condition -- at least if new research with mice applies to people.
For the study, researchers worked with two groups of mice -- one that had a receptor for the protein called IL-21, and one that did not. Both groups were shaved and their skin irritated using sticky tape to mimic the effect that scratching or damaging the skin would have in humans. In humans prone to eczema, this type of irritation would likely lead to an aggravated immune response and a worsening of eczema.
Researchers found that the presence of IL-21 was essential to the inflammation characteristic of eczema.
"We used mice that were genetically deficient in the receptor for IL-21 and these mice did not develop the disease, so the receptor is one of the critical factors for the development of eczema," said study author Dr. Raif Geha, chief of the children's division of allergy/immunology at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.
Geha and his colleagues found that even mice with IL-21 receptors could be spared from developing eczema by pumping them with a decoy receptor to fool their immune system and keep it from attacking the inflamed area. The finding offers further evidence that IL-21 is important in the formation of the disease and could point the way to future treatments, he said.
But, Geha added, much more research with animals is needed before the approach could be tried with people.
"One limitation is that while the mice didn't develop any side effects, we don't know if the same strategy would have side effects in humans," he said. "The other limitation is that we don't know if the agent will work after the eczema sets in."
Geha said future treatments might target individuals prone to eczema before they begin to show symptoms, but, again, much research remains to be done.
The study findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
To learn more about eczema, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Raif Geha, M.D., the James Gamble Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and chief, children's division of allergy/immunology, Children's Hospital, Boston; December 2008 Journal of Clinical Investigation