Eczema is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting up to 30% of people in the US. Symptoms include dry, itchy skin and rashes. But according to new research, having eczema may not be all that bad; it could reduce the risk of skin cancer.
In a study published in the journal eLife, researchers from King's College London in the UK say that eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, activates an immune response that sheds potentially cancerous cells from the skin, preventing tumor formation.
According to the research team, including Prof. Fiona Watt of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King's College, previous studies have suggested that eczema may reduce the risk of skin cancer.
However, they note that this association has proven difficult to confirm in human studies, as medication for eczema may influence cancer risk. Furthermore, symptoms of the condition vary in severity in each individual.
Eczema 'reduced tumor formation in mice models'
For their study, the team genetically engineered mice to have skin defects commonly found in humans with eczema.
They did this by removing structural proteins in the outer layers of their skin, causing them to have an abnormal skin barrier.
The researchers then tested two cancer-causing chemicals in the genetically engineered mice, as well as in normal mice.
They found that the number of benign tumors in defected mice was six times lower than the number found in the normal mice.
Further investigation revealed that although both the defected and normal mice had equal susceptibility to mutations caused by the chemicals, the defected mice had an "exaggerated" inflammatory response that resulted in potentially cancerous cells being shed from the skin.
Commenting on the study results, Prof. Watt says:
"We are excited by our findings as they establish a clear link between cancer susceptibility and an allergic skin condition in our experimental model. They also support the view that modifying the body's immune system is an important strategy in treating cancer.
I hope our study provides some small consolation to eczema sufferers - that this uncomfortable skin condition may actually be beneficial in some circumstances."
Skin cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer in the US, affecting more than 2 million people every year.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, incidence rates of melanoma skin cancer - a form of the disease that begins in the skin and spreads to other organs in the body - have been increasing over the past 30 years. It is now estimated that 1 in 50 Americans will develop the cancer in their lifetime.
Dr. Mike Turner, head of Infection and Immunobiology at the Wellcome Trust, who helped fund the study, says these latest findings may open the doors for new research into skin cancer prevention.
"Skin cancer is on the rise in many countries and any insight into the body's ability to prevent tumor formation is valuable in the fight against this form of cancer," he adds.
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study from the UK's Institute of Cancer Research, which suggested that black skin may have evolved in humans as a protective measure against skin cancer.