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What causes itching? Researchers Identify a Novel Trigger

Cracking The Itch Code: A Breakthrough in Understanding and Treating Itchy Skin

By Rajesh SharmaPublished 3 months ago 3 min read
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What causes itching? Researchers Identify a Novel Trigger
Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

Do you ever find yourself uncontrollably scratching an itch? Well, it turns out there might be a surprising culprit behind that irritating sensation – bacteria. Recent research has unveiled a new perspective on what triggers the urge to scratch, suggesting that certain bacteria, specifically Staphylococcus aureus, could be the root cause.

The study, published in the journal Cell, reveals that Staphylococcus aureus releases an enzyme, known as protease V8, which plays a key role in generating an itchy feeling. What's more, the researchers discovered that an existing FDA-approved drug, designed for a different purpose, can effectively halt this itch in laboratory mice. This finding holds promise for potential treatments for itchy skin conditions like eczema, which affects a substantial percentage of both children and adults.

Traditionally, research into itchy skin has centered on the role of the immune response and inflammation. Conditions like eczema often prompt immune system-targeted medications. However, the link between eczema and Staphylococcus aureus colonization has long been observed, though its significance remained unclear.

Isaac Chiu, a scientist at Harvard Medical School, whose work focuses on microbe-nerve cell interactions, explains the shift in perspective: "Could certain microbes like Staphylococcus aureus also particularly be in some way linked to itch? Is there a role for microbes in talking to itch neurons?"

To investigate, the researchers exposed mice to Staphylococcus aureus on their skin, resulting in intense scratching and skin damage. Further analysis identified protease V8 as the key enzyme triggering itching. This bacterial enzyme activates a protein on nerve cells in the skin, sending signals to the brain perceived as itchiness.

Liwen Deng, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, highlights the breakthrough: "Our study is really the first to show that the microbe can directly activate itch neurons and cause itch." What's even more exciting is that the protein activated by the bacteria is also present on certain blood cells involved in blood clotting. An existing anti-clotting medication successfully blocked the itch in lab animals.

Deng points out the fortunate coincidence: "We just got lucky that that was already an FDA-approved compound." The oral administration of the drug effectively eliminated itching and scratching induced by bacterial exposure in mice. Deng envisions the potential for a similar drug formulation in the form of a skin cream or topical medication.

Dermatologist and researcher Brian Kim from the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai acknowledges the significance of the findings. In the past, desperate attempts to alleviate eczema led some dermatologists to resort to diluted bleach baths or antibiotics, aiming to eliminate Staphylococcus aureus. Kim emphasizes the acute discomfort and debilitation caused by persistent itching, which can result in damaged skin, poor sleep, and embarrassment.

This groundbreaking research opens up a new avenue for understanding the mechanisms behind itching. Kim suggests that other bacteria residing on the skin might also directly interact with nerves, potentially causing itching. A future treatment targeting specific itch-producing molecules could offer a more precise approach without harming beneficial bacteria in and on the body.

The researchers speculate about the evolutionary purpose behind bacteria inducing itching. It's possible that scratching helps these microbes spread to other individuals or different parts of the body. Alternatively, scratching might create openings in the skin, providing a better environment for bacteria to thrive.

As Deng puts it, "We're not actually sure why Staphylococcus aureus would want to be inducing an itching response and whether it's beneficial for the microbe." The team is eager to explore these questions further, shedding light on the mysteries of itching that, despite being commonplace, remain enigmatic to scientists.

In conclusion, this groundbreaking study not only unveils the role of Staphylococcus aureus in triggering itching but also introduces a potential game-changer in the treatment of itchy skin conditions. The use of an FDA-approved drug to block the itch signals offers hope for a more effective and targeted approach, bringing relief to millions suffering from the discomfort of incessant itching.

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Rajesh Sharma

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