A new tactic for eczema? A newly identified brake on the allergic attack

March 6, 2018, Children's Hospital Boston
Credit: Arkady Chubykin/Adobe Stock/Children's Hospital Boston

Eczema affects about 17 percent of children in developed countries and is often the gateway to food allergy and asthma, initiating an "atopic march" toward broader allergic sensitization. There are treatments - steroid creams and a recently approved biologic - but they are expensive or have side effects. A new study in Science Immunology suggests a different approach to eczema, one that stimulates a natural brake on the allergic attack.

The skin inflammation of eczema is known to be driven by "type 2" immune responses. These are led by activated T helper 2 (TH2) cells and type 2 (ILC2s), together known as . Another group of T cells, known as regulatory T cells or Tregs, are known to temper type 2 responses, thereby suppressing the allergic response.

Yet, if you examine an eczema lesion, the numbers of Tregs are unchanged. Interestingly, Tregs comprise only about 5 percent of the body's T cells, but up to 50 percent of T cells in the skin.

"Our question was, is there something special about the Tregs that reside in the skin?" says Raif Geha, MD, chief of the Division of Immunology at Boston Children's Hospital and the senior author of the study.

Geha led an investigation using two separate mouse models of eczema, each recreating a separate pathway leading to allergic skin inflammation. The team purified Tregs from the animals' skin and blood and compared the genes they express.

Several genes were especially likely to be turned on in the skin Tregs. One encodes retinoid-related orphan receptor alpha (RORα), a transcription factor that itself regulates multiple other genes.

"We then used a genetic trick to remove RORα only from Tregs," says Geha. "Without RORα, allergic inflammation went crazy in both our mouse models."

The team saw a three-fold increase in the influx of , and ILC2s and TH2 cells were at the center of the action.

Restraining allergic skin inflammation

Why did the Tregs stop working when RORα was removed? Geha and colleagues discovered that the cells made less of a receptor for a cytokine called TNF ligand-related molecule 1, or TL1A. TL1A is released by known as keratinocytes, and activates not only Tregs but also ILC2 and TH2 effector cells.

"The two kinds of are competing for TL1A," Geha explains. "If Tregs don't have this receptor, they can't 'see' TL1A. Not only are they not activated, but more TL1A is available to activate the effector cells. So you have a double whammy."

Testing human samples, the team documented higher expression of RORα in skin Tregs compared with those in blood, similar to mice.

Geha now wants to see if RORα is expressed less in human and whether it's important in the atopic march. If so, he sees several possible treatment approaches.

One is to boost RORα's level or activity with compounds that act as RORα agonists, perhaps given in a topical cream. Geha's lab also plans to look for factors in the that drive RORα activity, which could present other targets for intervention. Finally, the study showed that RORα regulates the expression of several genes important for Treg cell migration and function; those pathways could be potential targets too.

Explore further: Researchers discover new source of skin defects in eczema

More information: Nidhi Malhotra et al, RORα-expressing T regulatory cells restrain allergic skin inflammation, Science Immunology (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciimmunol.aao6923

Related Stories

Researchers discover new source of skin defects in eczema

February 27, 2018
Researchers at National Jewish Health have discovered a cause of the dry, inflamed and itchy skin that plagues eczema patients. A team led by Donald Leung, MD, Ph.D., has shown that an immune system skewed toward allergy ...

Stopping the itch—new clues into how to treat eczema

October 11, 2012
More than 15% of children suffer with eczema, or atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease that in some cases can be debilitating and disfiguring. Researchers reporting in the October issue of Immunity have discovered ...

Scientists discover surprising immune cell activity that may be limiting immunotherapy

October 30, 2017
Researchers have uncovered a surprising process within a key immune cell that may help explain the limitations of immunotherapy as a cancer treatment.

Itch maintains regulatory T cell stability

October 26, 2013
Regulatory T cells (Tregs) function to suppress immune responses of other cells, and their dysfunction has been associated with development of immune disorders. Recent studies suggest that Tregs maintain plasticity even after ...

Balancing T cell populations

November 25, 2013
Depending on the signals received, naïve T cells are able to differentiate into mature T cell populations, which play different roles in the immune system. For example, regulatory T cells (Tregs) are important for tamping ...

Researchers discover key driver of atopic dermatitis

January 17, 2018
Severe eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that is driven by an allergic reaction. In their latest study, researchers at La Jolla Institute reveal an important player that promotes ...

Recommended for you

Protein police keep the immune system in check

December 17, 2018
Our immune systems defend our bodies against dangerous invaders and help clean up when damage is done. But if our bold protectors are left unsupervised, they sometimes do their jobs too well and end up harming healthy tissues. ...

New, rapid and robust method for single cell profiling

December 17, 2018
Many of the cell types in our bodies work in obscure ways that science does not yet fully understand. That also goes for immune cells, which are vital for protecting us against serious diseases.

Probiotic gives long-standing protection against childhood eczema, study finds

December 17, 2018
Giving a probiotic supplement to pregnant mothers and their infants significantly reduces the chances of a child developing eczema for the first 11 years of their life, researchers have shown.

RNA processing and antiviral immunity

December 14, 2018
The RIG-I like receptors (RLRs) are intracellular enzyme sentries that detect viral infection and initiate a first line of antiviral defense. The cellular molecules that activate RLRs in vivo are not clear.

The 'greying' of T cells: Scientists pinpoint metabolic pathway behind age-related immunity loss

December 13, 2018
The elderly suffer more serious complications from infections and benefit less from vaccination than the general population. Scientists have long known that a weakened immune system is to blame but the exact mechanisms behind ...

Scientists create most accurate tool yet developed to predict asthma in young children

December 13, 2018
Scientists at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center have created and tested a decision tool that appears to be the most accurate, non-invasive method yet developed to predict asthma in young children.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

KBK
not rated yet Mar 06, 2018
How about we get rid of the many thousands upon thousands of allowed inorganic and chemical stew based additives that are tested in isolation but never together.

Even thought they all exist in the food together and over the long term represent a LD50 of some horrid sort. Some weasel work in the proving and testing, this singular testing, is.

Then remove the chemical stew that is the environment, which plays at least as big a part.

Maybe put the originally present nutrients back into the food, whee modern foods are extremely nutrient poor compared to the food of old..

Then take a look at the incidence of eczema again.

go back to first cause analysis, go after source, not symptom.

which the medical industry hates... as it lives, like a parasite... off of long term permanent injury that pays them forever. They will have no truck with cures, as cures kill their multi-trillion dollar business model.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.