Scouring the Skin for Clues to Better Health

Jun. 15, 2012
Department of Dermatology Launches Skin Barrier Research Consortium
A fluorescence image of healthy skin. Defects in the skin barrier play a critical role in the development of diseases like eczema.

The skin is much more than the part of our body that gets sunburned in the summer and pasty in the winter: It is our largest organ and the barrier that separates us from the outside world, where we encounter thousands of allergens, irritants, pollutants, microbes and more on a daily basis. Persistent defects in the barrier can result in crippling conditions, but brief breaches may enable the delivery of lifesaving drugs, improve vaccine effectiveness and allow new ways to diagnose disease.

Given the skin barrier’s power to hurt and heal, researchers in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center are teaming up with specialists from across the University – experts in environmental medicine, vaccine biology, optics and engineering, to name a few – to form the Skin Barrier Research Consortium. The goal: discovering how the barrier works and ways in which we can manipulate it to improve our health.

Alice P. Pentland, M.D., James H. Sterner Professor and Chair of the Department of Dermatology and head of the new program, says, “The skin is where the action is. It is our first line of defense against everything we encounter in the environment and contains twice as many immune cells than any other place in the body.” 

Alice P. Pentland, M.D.

Researchers and clinicians will work to understand the factors necessary for a healthy skin barrier and characterize the skin barrier defects in the two most common inflammatory skin diseases – eczema and psoriasis – which Pentland’s team knows, firsthand, can be devastating for patients and families.

“Between 14 and 20 percent of kids have eczema and many of them don’t sleep at night because they are itching constantly. This goes on and on and the stress on the child, the parents and the rest of the family is huge,” noted Pentland. “Likewise, psoriasis presents major challenges. It doesn’t just affect the skin; it puts stress on the cardiovascular system and can lead to buildups of plaque in the arteries.”

The team will focus on identifying genes and mechanisms responsible for faulty barriers, which will be useful in treating not only psoriasis and eczema, but skin wounds, such as burns, as well.

Lisa A. Beck, M.D. and Anna De Benedetto, M.D.

In addition to Pentland, faculty with mixed, yet complementary backgrounds will spearhead different lines of research.

·         Lisa A. Beck, M.D., professor in the Departments of Dermatology and Allergy/Immunology and Rheumatology, is an expert on the molecular structure of the skin barrier and will study how interactions between the barrier and the immune system lead to disease, with a specific focus on eczema or atopic dermatitis.  

·         Lisa A. DeLouise, Ph.D., researches how the environment challenges the barrier and how materials get through. Much of her work focuses on nanoparticles, including how these smallest of particles can get through the skin and potentially deliver drugs or cause harm. DeLouise is an associate professor in the Departments of Dermatology, Biomedical Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

·         Benjamin L. Miller, Ph.D., professor in the Departments of Dermatology, Biochemistry and Biophysics and Biomedical Engineering, studies drug compounds that could improve the strength of the skin barrier, as well as new ways – aside from giving a shot – to get drugs through the barrier.

“The skin barrier has huge relevance in medicine,” said Beck, who is also on the board of directors of the Society for Investigative Dermatology, the leading organization devoted to research on skin health and disease. “Over the past several years, we’ve learned a lot more about the immune system and the skin, including that the skin barrier may be what triggers and determines how the immune system reacts to allergens like pollen, pet dander, and even food.”

In the future, Beck says, we may learn how to disrupt the barrier in a good way to elicit a greater immune response to vaccines and other therapies. Currently, the skin is used only as a passageway for medication, for example, by administering a vaccine via a needle through the skin.

Other researchers from the Department of Dermatology who will participate in the new consortium include Julie Ryan, Ph.D., M.P.H., Francisco Tausk, M.D., and Anna De Benedetto, M.D..

The team’s research is funded by a number of institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Dermatology Foundation and the National Eczema Association.  

Beck says the consortium stems from faculty members working closely over the years, developing similar interests, and gaining greater expertise and funding. But, she stresses, the major driver is Pentland’s leadership. “Alice recruited people who bring different aspects to our mission and who interact well with one another. She also encourages great synergy within the department; she doesn’t just say ‘work together,’ she works with you, encourages you and makes sure synergy happens.”

Pentland, who is also secretary-treasurer of the Society for Investigative Dermatology, has served as chair of the Department of Dermatology for the past 15 years.