As I wrote in the previous post, the outlook is bleak for new eczema therapies that might qualify as a “cure.” On the fronts of barrier protection and repair and anti-inflammatories, nothing revolutionary is in the works apart from, perhaps, dupilumab, Regeneron’s antibody to IL-4. I can’t see anything emerging from research and entering and successfully exiting clinical trials for at least 25 years.
What might I have left out of this discussion? Where could a surprise come from?
Itch. Itch was the area that occurred to me. Imagine being able to break the itch-scratch cycle in eczema. You know what it’s like: your skin flares up and the itch becomes unbearable. You scratch to get relief. Sometimes you scratch in your sleep. Then your skin is torn up, which for a start can be embarrassing, but also often leads to infection. If there were no itch to begin with, eczema might never become anything more than a minor rash. Its impact on quality of life would be greatly minimized.
I believe we might see a convergence of two major trends that would result in a new anti-itch drug that patients could take in pill or cream form.
The first trend: In the past few years I have seen a number of papers describing newly identified neurons that transmit the sensation of itch, distinct from pain. The experiments were done on animals such as mice and cats; I don’t think these neurons have been found in people yet. But you can bet there are many scientists beavering away to be the first in the field.
Turning on or blocking neural receptors is what drugs do best. Think anesthetics. These itch neurons, if found in humans, are likely going to have receptors similar to those in other animals, and the search will be on to find drugs that block the receptors.
(You could also imagine a therapy using RNA interference to prevent neurons in the skin from making itch receptors in the first place.)
The second trend: scientists are developing powerful new techniques to speed the drug discovery process. While it does take around 15 years to take a new drug all the way through clinical trials to FDA approval, the path is shorter for “repurposed” drugs (such as Viagra, originally planned as a heart medication). The barrier is lower because the drug has already been proven nontoxic. Repurposed drugs have been approved as treatments for one condition but have side effects that, depending on your perspective, qualify as primary effects. There could well be an FDA-approved anti-itch drug out there already. It’s just being used to treat toenail fungus.
A company I am familiar with (I know the founders), SeaChange Pharmaceuticals, developed a rigorous way to search through databases of drugs and identify potential side effects or secondary uses, based on the chemistry of the protein targets for the drugs. (Wired magazine named SeaChange’s technology one of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2009.)
The idea would be that scientists would identify itch neurons in humans, and pin down the itch receptor; then somebody at Pfizer or Novartis or whatever would use a SeaChange-like technique to find FDA-approved drugs that block the receptor. Presto: no more itch. Conceivably this might happen within a decade.
Now, evidently these new drug discovery techniques could be applied in the areas of anti-inflammatories, or barrier repair. I think, though, that itch is a prime candidate for a surprise eczema “cure” because it’s likely that the itch sensation comes down to a single receptor. Blocking that receptor by a conventional drug will be a relatively simple task, compared to controlling inflammation without leaving the patient vulnerable to infection, or taking on the dubious task of compensating for a defective skin barrier in infants.
That’s my opinion.