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About 35 million Americans are estimated to have eczema. It's a chronic skin disease that causes dry and often very itchy rashes. It usually starts early in childhood, and many children grow out of it. About half have the problem well into adulthood. Now researchers are making headway in their search for a treatment for people with moderate to severe forms of the disease. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Mild eczema is usually helped with moisturizers to prevent dry skin and sometimes prescription medications to reduce inflammation. But when it comes to moderate and severe eczema, dermatologist Jon Hanifin with Oregon Health and Science University says current treatments are ineffective and symptoms can be unbearable.
JON HANIFIN: It's extreme inflammation, very red, but it's often somewhat swollen or bumpy.
NEIGHMOND: And because of the incredible itch, he says, patients often have deep scratch marks all over and around the patch of eczema.
HANIFIN: The skin often thickens in response to the scratching and rubbing that the patients do to try to control the itch.
NEIGHMOND: The thickened skin is often darker and always itchy. Eczema is caused by an immune system gone awry, and the new medication blocks chemicals called interleukins that cause inflammation. And unlike other treatments, this medication targets the itch.
HANIFIN: It blocks the receptor on the nerve cells and reduces the itch.
NEIGHMOND: Just over 200 patients with moderate to severe eczema took part in this study. Some received a placebo. Some received the medication, which is injected every four weeks. And some got a higher dose every eight weeks.
HANIFIN: At 12 weeks, there was very statistically significant improvement. Not 100 percent, but patients were delighted not to have the itching keeping them up at night.
NEIGHMOND: On a scale of 1 to 10, patients described the intensity of their itch. After treatment, improvements ranged from 40 to 63 percent reduction in itching. Hanifin is one of the academic authors of this study, which was paid for and designed by the drug's manufacturer. It appears in The New England Journal of Medicine. Pediatrician Lynda Schneider directs the allergy program at Boston Children's Hospital and was not involved in this study. She says the new medication is uniquely promising because it targets the need to scratch, which only increases the itch and the rash.
LYNDA SCHNEIDER: If you can target the itching, that makes a big difference in the disease. If patients aren't itching, they're not disrupting their skin barrier. They're not allowing bacteria and other triggers to pass through the skin.
NEIGHMOND: Schneider wrote an editorial accompanying the study. Another similar medication is also under investigation and making its way toward possible approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Between the two new drugs, researcher Hanifin says one of them will likely be available for patients with moderate to severe eczema within the next year or so. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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