Atopic dermatitis, which affects around one in five children and one in 20 adults in the UK, causes chronic and itchy lesions on the face, scalp and limbs as well as broken skin, which makes patients more susceptible to picking up infections.
A team from Edinburgh University found that sufferers from the condition lack a natually-occurring protective compound in their skin cells, known as human beta-defensin 2 (hBD2).
When hBD2 was applied to skin cells grown in the lab, the scientists discovered it helped the skin to remain intact and strengthened protection against bacterial damage, according to the new study, which is published today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
The team are now trying to develop a cream or lotion containing the protective compound which could be spread onto the skin.
Lead author Dr Donald J. Davidson, a MRC research fellow at Edinburgh’s University’s centre for inflammation research, said: “We are a step away from being able to use it as a therapy.
“It’s been known for a while that people with atopic dermatitis do not make enough of this stuff and this was also causing problems with bacterial infections.
“If you imagine the skin as a wall with bricks and mortar, then this compound helps to strengthen the bricks.
“We think there is some sort of barrier which prevent people making the hBN2.
“Now we are interested in thinking why do people with atopic dermatitis not make enough of this stuff? And asking how can we encourage their skin cells to do that.
“It is likely to be about trying to find away around the blockage that prevents it and getting the body to make its own defences.”
This form of eczema can have a serious impact on people’s lives and conventional treatments are known to become less effective over time.
Current treatment with steroid creams can also have worrying side effects such as bruising, acne and thinning of the skin.
Eczema sufferers are at greater risk of carrying staph infections on their skin, which can infect skin lesions and cause damage to the skin barrier.
These patients also do not produce enough of the protective compound in the skin, which researchers found was vital to preventing skin damage.
Vitamin D is known to increase the skin’s production of the protective compound, but scientists are unsure why it affects certain people.
A large body of research is now focusing on trying to pre-empt damage to the skin, particularly in children, to prevent eczema developing.
The Edinburgh University team are now looking into whether they can find a way around the barriers that prevent eczema patients developing hBD2.
Dr Davidson added: “This is a great chance to work with something that the body makes naturally to develop new therapies for atopic eczema, which affects so many people’s lives.”
The team have also had positive results testing their theory on human skin, donated by surgical patients, in further research which has yet to be published.