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The hunt for eczema genes

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) is halfway through a major project examining possible genetic causes of atopic dermatitis which is the most common form of eczema. Eczema is a common, chronic skin condition affecting around 10% of Australian children and 7% of adults. It usually occurs before two years of age and is one of the three conditions comprising the allergic triad – asthma, hayfever and eczema.

Eczema can have a dramatic effect on quality of life, with symptoms including itching, redness and scaling of the skin. While treatments have advanced over recent years, they are not effective for all sufferers and usually only provide symptomatic relief, not prevention or cure. Chief Investigator of the QIMR study, Dr David Duffy, will examine several genes known to be involved in causing atopic dermatitis and also test newly discovered genes to see if they are involved.

As with asthma, genes are known to be important in causing eczema however these findings are not always repeatable in different countries or ethnic groups. One gene, the mast cell chymase gene, seems to be associated with eczema in Japan but not in Australia or Italy. It is possible that this gene is responsible only in cases where the blood level of immunoglobulin E is low. QIMR’s study will test all the published genes in two groups of families: one where both eczema and asthma or hayfever are present in the family and the second where eczema alone is present. Scientists will also test for genetic linkage to particular regions of the genome, where a specific gene is yet to be identified.

Confirming the nature of genes involved in causing eczema is useful for the basic understanding of the biochemical pathways that lead to the disease. “Ultimately this new knowledge could lead to the design of better drugs to interfere with these pathways and provide better treatments for sufferers,” said Dr Duffy.