Monday, July 2, 2012

Rochester group to focus on skin barrier

Alice Pentland, chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, whom I interviewed recently for a post on the NEA website, also directs the newly-formed Skin Barrier Research Consortium, a subunit of her department. The group, as its name suggests, brings together scientists studying the skin barrier--in particular, its permeability, which is thought to be a key factor in allergic eczema, and which could in normal skin be temporarily increased to administer needle-free vaccines.

I learned about the consortium from a Rochester press release. According to Pentland there is no special funding. They aren't applying for any large NIH grants. So the group's formation is symbolic. But it might give the department a mission, and could make it a more formidable applicant for future grants.

Pentland detailed the roles of the researchers in the consortium for me. Of particular interest to eczema patients:
  • Lisa Beck, who is conducting a pilot-stage clinical trial of Actos, a drug originally developed for diabetics but also found to increase the integrity of the skin. Beck is also building a registry of patients (apparently more than 200 now) who have "classic" (and I'd assume that means "allergic") atopic dermatitis, partly characterized by high levels of IgE antibodies in the blood. A major problem for dermatologists, Pentland said, is that several conditions look like AD on the surface but aren't. A vetted registry of patients will help researchers study causes of AD.
  • Anna De Benedetto, a doctor who is studying how the electrical resistance of skin is correlated with its permeability
  • Ben Miller, a chemist who is synthesizing small drug molecules aimed at targets identified by others in the group
  • Lisa DeLouise, a material scientist looking at how a changed skin barrier, caused by AD or sunburn, may make nanoparticles toxic when they normally wouldn't be
  • and Elaine Gilmore, who studies the molecular mechanisms of itch.
"It's a good broad-spectrum effort," Pentland says of the consortium. I'll be following their work. I'm most excited about the Actos trial, but I look forward to learning about collaborations between members of the group.

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