Ever had an itch you can’t scratch? This researcher wants to help

7 Jun 2019

Dr Jianghui Meng is working to develop therapeutics for chronic itch. Image: Dr Jiafu Wang

Dr Jianghui Meng of DCU is devoting her academic career to discovering the cause behind a debilitating condition called chronic itch.

The average person scratches themselves numerous times a day without even thinking about it. But for a surprisingly large proportion of the world, there is an itch that seemingly will never go away with scratching.

This is called ‘chronic itch’, a blanket term for a variety of reasons as to why our skin is irritated to the point that we are not able to relieve it. While something might be obviously irritating – such as a harsh substance landing on our skin – there can be many undiagnosed reasons that can drive you crazy.

Between 10pc and 20pc of the world’s population live with some form of chronic itch, with the most common being atopical dermatitis, commonly referred to as eczema. Aside from being itchy, this can present itself as red, flaky and sometimes oozing skin.

Varying in severity, living with chronic itch is not to be taken lightly. With a mysterious origin and often a lack of clarity in what may trigger it, patients presenting to doctors can often be affected seriously from a psychological perspective.

Severe mental strain

“Chronic itch can last about six weeks in duration and it can be very debilitating and even life-threatening in some cases,” according to Dr Jianghui Meng, a researcher at the International Centre for Neurotherapeutics in Dublin City University (DCU).

“A flare-up [of eczema] can often occur in patients. It’s not very easy to treat and it can lead to very torturous conditions and severe pain, sometimes even leading to patient suicide.”

In 2016 Meng was one of a number of women researchers named as recipients of the Starting Investigator Research Grants from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). At the time, she spoke of it allowing her the opportunity to attend international conferences and discuss chronic itch with her peers.

After spending her early years in research working in chronic pain, she transitioned to studying chronic itch after noticing it was not only being overlooked by some of her peers, but thought of as not as important.

“As you can imagine, an itch is very different from the pain, it’s a different sensation. It’s quite a new research area when you consider that most other areas have been studied for at least 100 years.”

As part of her work, Meng and her fellow researchers have published eight papers wherein she was able to show how the itch mechanism has its own immune-sensory as well as skin-signalling pathways and networks. This included providing new insights about brain natriuretic peptide as an important regulator of neuro-inflammation, as well as itch in the skin of atopic dermatitis. Meng said this was the first ever evidence of the link between the itch and brain-signalling in eczema.

Easing the pain

What she and her team are trying to crack, however, is a series of novel therapeutics that could quickly and treat the long-term effects of chronic itch. More specifically, this would involve targeting sensory systems in other skin cells.

According to Meng, the soothing effects of current topical treatments don’t last very long, while immunosuppressant medication – such as injectable antibodies – have their own side effects and also just aren’t attractive to patients.

While her research is at the forefront of our understanding of chronic itch, other researchers are also undertaking the challenge.

In August of last year, researchers at the University of Zurich in Austria discovered that two receptors placed in the spinal cord of a patient in combination with the taking of an experimental drug suppressed chronic itch.

Testing in both mice and dogs, the creatures scratched themselves less often and their skin changes healed significantly quickly thanks to a drug originally developed to treat anxiety.

In the meantime, Meng believes the work she and her fellow researchers have achieved in new therapeutics could one day change the lives of those living with the condition. She has also established extensive collaborations with world-renowned dermatologists, including Prof Martin Steinhoff, Prof Timo Buhl and Dr Szegedi Andrea.

“I have had two joined international patents [accepted] in DCU already based on the development of therapeutics for the pain,” she said. “Now, it’s very promising that we’ll [secure] each patent.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic