Universiteit Leiden

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A fatty solution for eczema

Pharmacologist Walter Boiten developed a new method to determine the amount of lipids in a person's skin. With this method he tested the effects of a new cream he developed for eczema patients. The first results are promising. Boiten defends his dissertation on 15 January.

The cement of the skin

The skin is one of the most important barriers protecting us from the outside world. Fats or lipids are an essential part of this barrier. In the outer layer of the skin, the horny layer, these lipids form a well-organised structure that depends on the composition of the lipids. In the case of skin diseases such as eczema, something goes wrong with this composition and the barrier no longer works properly. ‘You can imagine it as a brick wall, of which the skin cells are the bricks and the fats are the cement,’ explains Boiten. ‘If the cement has the wrong composition, you can't build a good wall with it. That's what happens to the lipid composition in eczema.’

High-fat cream

In the West, eczema affects a quarter of all children. But also adults can suffer from it, in about 1 in 10 persons this is the case. Eczema patients often apply high-fat creams against their condition, but little is known about what exactly such a cream does to the skin. The influence of the composition of such a cream is also unknown.

‘That's why I've developed a new method to measure the number of lipids and their composition in a person's skin’, says Boiten. ‘We do this using a sample obtained with special adhesive tape. We looked at a lipid group that is essential for the skin, the ceramides.’ With the new method, Boiten tested the effects of a new fatty cream in healthy volunteers. ‘Here we saw that this cream helped restore the lipids in the skin barrier.’ In eczema patients, the effect of the cream has yet to be proven.

3D representation of the result of a measurement with a mass spectrometer used to measure skin lipids. Image: Walter Boiten

Finally, Boiten also investigated a specific variant of ceramides that is bound to the cells of the horny layer. ‘I discovered that this group of ceramides has a different composition in eczema patients and that these specific lipids are therefore a possible target for a cream.’

New insights

Boiten's research provides scientists with new insights into the barrier repair of the skin and what goes wrong in skin diseases such as eczema. Boiten: ‘The great thing about this new method is that you can work with human samples in a patient-friendly way. The results show that lipids are a good target for barrier repair in skin diseases. We have found several new targets that we could improve with a cream. It puts us in a leading position to research new creams and medicines to make the lives of eczema patients more bearable.’

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