'Godfather of Itch' Tackles Sensitive Subject
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, here is a story that might just get under your skin. Doctors, researchers, and clinicians gathered in San Francisco this week for the Fourth International Workshop for the Study of Itch. And they're not just talking about mosquito bites and poison ivy. Chronic itching can be very serious, affecting millions of people, many with illnesses such as kidney disease and HIV.
Dr. Gil Yosipovitch is a dermatologist and neurobiologist. He's also founder of the conference, and he says there have been big developments recently.
Dr. GIL YOSIPOVITCH (Dermatology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Wake Forest University Baptist; Founder, International Forum for the Study of Itch): There are quite a lot of hot news in the last month. One of them is that they found a gene for itch in mice. And when the mice, which lacked this gene, they stopped scratching. However, I want to be careful in saying that there's a big difference between mice and humans. So there's a long way to go, but this opens the field.
NORRIS: Why is itch so hard to understand?
Dr. YOSIPOVITCH: I would say that in pain we didn't solve what causes pain and there are so many mediators, and it's very similar to itch in that sense. But there are a lot of factors involved in inducing the itch response. So it could be chemical, it could be irritant - mechanically, like, you know, when you put a wool sweater on yourself, you feel that urge to itch. And it could be an insect bite reaction, and it could be also damage to the neurofibers in the brain.
But we're getting close to understanding how to reduce itch intensity. And this is the prime area of it, I think. It's like we can't abolish all pain. Pain is the system that helps us to defend ourself, and the same with itch most probably. So if we can reduce itch intensity that is of importance to our suffering patients. And there are millions of them out there.
NORRIS: If you're looking at some of these, the breakthrough treatments, what's the most promising thing on the horizon?
Dr. YOSIPOVITCH: There are very few drugs. The FDA actually - there's no drug focused on itch. And in Japan now, there has been a launch for the first time a drug focused on itch. And what is a breakthrough, again, presented in this meeting was that this drug has reduced itch. It did not abolish all itch, but reduced itch intensity in those patients with chronic renal failure, kidney-disease patients. They have relentless itch.
And I have to point out that, just recently, a large-scale study in 18,000 hemodialysis patients all over the world - the study found out that 42 percent of these patients had quite severe itch and it affected their mortality rate. They had higher mortality rate, and it was related to sleep problems.
NORRIS: Oh, they couldn't sleep at night?
Dr. YOSIPOVITCH: Right, because of the itch. It's very interesting that itch is actually amplified at nighttime and evening. A lot of our patients do not sleep well, and now it affects their quality of life significantly.
NORRIS: Is there such a thing as sympathetic itch, just by talking about it, you can actually trigger that sensation?
Dr. YOSIPOVITCH: Oh, that's an excellent point that has been shown in study where people, healthy people, sitting in a auditorium seeing a patient scratching and itching, about 60 percent of the people in the audience started scratching themselves. And it was documented.
NORRIS: So, doctor, how do you get through a four-day conference on itching without starting to scratch a bit yourself?
Dr. YOSIPOVITCH: Well, I agree with you, but during this interview, I may be scratching myself, too.
NORRIS: That's Dr. Gil Yosipovitch. He's the founder of the International Forum for the Study of Itch. He's also a professor of dermatology and neurobiology at Wake Forest University.
This is NPR. National Public Radio.