Hebrew U. scientists itching to help you stop scratching

It’s not an illness, but itching skin can drive sufferers mad.

June 29, 2013 22:48
3 minute read.

AN ISRAELI doctor 370. (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

It’s not an illness, but itching skin can drive sufferers mad. Now, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Boston Children’s Hospital near Harvard Medical School have come to the rescue, by discovering how to silence the neurons that transmit itch-generating stimuli.

This is the first time that this has been demonstrated, and means it is possible to block itch signals in the neurons that are the mediators in creating the types of itch not involving histamine – a chemical found in some of the body’s cells that causes many allergy symptoms, brought on when histamine triggers an inflammatory immune response to foreign agents, as occurs in hay fever. Their findings are believed to have great clinical importance because they could be translated into novel, selective and effective therapies for previously largely untreated dry skin itch and allergic dermatitis itch.

The study demonstrated the presence of functionally distinct sets of neurons that detect and transmit itch-generating stimuli. The research was a collaborative effort by a group led by Dr. Alex Binshtok of Hebrew University’s medical neurobiology department, the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada and the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences. The findings were recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Itch is a complex, unpleasant sensation of the skin that in some respects resembles pain, yet is different because of the urge to scratch and its intrinsic sensory quality.

Although some types of itch like urticaria (hives) could be treated effectively with antihistaminergic agents, itch accompanying most chronic itch-inducing diseases, including atopic dermatitis (eczema), allergic itch and dry skin itch, is not primarily induced by histamine.

An understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the sensation of itch, therefore, is important to develop effective and selective treatment of itch, which in some cases could become a devastating condition, say the researchers.

The researchers’ findings suggest that primary itch-generating neurons that carry messages toward the central nervous system code functionally distinct histaminergic and non-histaminergic itch pathways that could be selectively blocked.


A new research institute, to be established at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya and affiliated with the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee (now housed in temporary quarters in Safed), was launched with a cornerstone-laying ceremony early this month. Construction of the institute is being funded by the state, along with a gift from businesswoman Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, who serves as president of the Israel Friends of the northern hospital, with funds raised by outgoing BIU president Prof. Moshe Kaveh.

The building will cover 1,200 square meters and due to open in a year. It will be a boon to the twoyear- old (fifth) Israeli medical school, which is home to Israeli students who have returned from medical study abroad and others who have completed a B.Sc. Some 300 students are currently enrolled, 50 of them research students. Fourteen Israeli physicians and researchers have returned to Israel to join the staff.

BIU hopes that obtaining building permits for construction of the medical school’s permanent campus in Safed will go smoothly, and that ground will soon be broken for that project and that it will receive the necessary state funds. By 2015, it hopes to take on 42 senior faculty members, and set up a four-year program for 280 students and a threeyear program for 108 additional students.

It also wants to enroll 132 research students and hire 66 administrative and technical staffers. Medical school dean Prof. Ran Tur-Kaspa said at the ceremony that the institute will operate in a translationresearch format, with the objective of developing drugs for a wide spectrum of illnesses.

“This is an important project which would not have taken shape were it not for Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, who has tirelessly supported our hospital and this research institute,” said Western Galilee Hospital directorgeneral Dr. Masad Barhoum. “The establishment of a medical research institute constitutes a great increase in the status of our hospital as a leader in the field of medicine and academia on a national and international level,” he said.

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