Hanifin is one of the US's leading dermatologists, and practices at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. He was kind enough to send me the Powerpoint of his talk, which I wanted to read because I figured from its title ("AD Pathogenesis: What's New") that it would give me a good picture of the field.
His talk was encyclopedic and technical and I'm not going to attempt to cover the whole thing. But it did make clear to me that the standard model for how eczema arises and develops is in a state of flux.
For a long time, it was thought that allergy was the dominant factor in eczema. But a key paper in 2006 linked higher risk of developing eczema and asthma to mutations in the gene coding for the protein filaggrin. Filaggrin is a long protein, consisting of a string of subunits, that has an important structural role in skin cells, especially in the uppermost layer (the stratum corneum), and also gets broken down at the surface into something called "natural moisturizing factor." From that first paper came a flood of research into filaggrin, which has helped paint a fuller picture.
One thing that jumped out at me from Hanifin's talk was that the relationship between filaggrin mutation and eczema is not simple. The severity of eczema depends on where mutations are within the protein; it's possible to have more than one mutation, which greatly increases the likelihood that you'll get eczema.
Hanifin cautions that filaggrin is not the only genetic culprit in the origins of eczema. Mutations in certain other proteins can compromise the skin barrier.
If filaggrin is messed up, your skin barrier will be too--it'll be leaky--and this means that your body gets exposed early on to a wide variety of antigens that it otherwise wouldn't be. Recently I wrote about the "hygiene hypothesis," which posits that it's good for kids to get exposed to germs because that helps prevent allergies later on, but it seems that it's not good to get exposed to too many germs, because that leads to allergies later on. There's a Goldilocks-just-right amount of germs that your immune system needs to encounter to develop properly. Hanifin laid out the current thinking, which goes as follows:
- Defects in skin cell proteins let in irritants, microbes, allergens
- This causes skin cells to release a signaling molecule called "TSLP"
- TSLP stimulates white blood cells to develop an immune system dominated by type 2 helper T cells (which act via antibodies and inflammation, rather than by macrophages that eat pathogens)
- Th2 cells induce production of IgE antibodies, and then you have classic allergies linked to eczema.
Now, is it possible to have atopic dermatitis without abnormal IgE/Th2? Hanifin replied by email:
Yes, roughly 20% of AD patients have typical eczema without any Th2/IgE abnormalities or asthma, etc. ( I call that "pure AD" but allergists tend to call it "intrinsic.") It's been known for years and is the reason we've always doubted that allergy was causative for the skin disease--IgE is clearly involved with hay fever, food allergy and some cases of asthma that usually accompany AD.Hanifin lays a lot of stress on the precise definition of food allergy, which is specifically defined as an adverse health effect, rather than an adverse immune response. (He refers you, and me, to the NIAID Food Allergy Guidelines.) A positive IgE test for a food doesn't necessarily mean you're allergic. You have to get ill after eating something to be truly allergic to it. Hanifin clarifies:
Not necessarily ill, but usually rapid onset of hives, maybe nausea, cough--sometimes anaphylaxis...The tests are often imprecise and not everyone with high specific IgE levels reacts to that food. Whether they have become tolerant or never were allergic can only be speculated.My guess is that Hanifin and other dermatologists are increasingly under siege from overinformed patients such as myself who have garnered information from the internet and are now demanding that their doctors conduct allergy tests to nail down the one or two things they're convinced must be causing their eczema. In his email, he comments that there are currently "enormous financial incentives associated with the belief of allergy causation of AD." Patients, and the insurance system, are paying a lot of money for test results that aren't useful.
What I'd like to see an explanation of is why most children grow out of eczema. What is it that's happening to their skin barrier and immune systems as they mature over the ages of 3-8 or so that is freeing them from the disease? Maybe, if we knew, we could capture and intensify that process and apply it to at-risk children and adults who have remained affected.