August 16, 2018
Exposure to the sun is hard on everyone’s skin, causing cells to die. But skin cells are much more vulnerable in people with lupus. That reaction is called photosensitivity.
A team of scientists led by Theresa Lu, MD, PhD, at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York may have discovered why. With her Lupus Research Alliance Target Identification in Lupus (TIL) grant, Dr. Lu and her colleagues found that one type of skin cell keeps other skin cells alive after exposure to the sun. However, these protective cells, known as Langerhans cells, are less abundant than usual in patients with lupus and don’t work properly.
Dr. Lu and her team determined how Langerhans cells provide protection. They release molecules that switch on a protein known as the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that stops cells from dying. When the researchers exposed lupus-prone mice to ultraviolet light like that produced by the sun, the animals developed skin blisters. But spreading EGFR-stimulating molecules on the animals’ skin reduced the inflammation, the researchers found.
A similar approach might work in people. Other scientists are now performing a clinical trial that is testing whether a cream that activates EGFR soothes rashes in patients with cancer. Dr. Lu and her colleagues suggest that this treatment or other new therapies that stimulate EGFR might help protect people with lupus from the sun. Their findings are reported in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine.