A research programme into genetics has identified new forms of the skin condition eczema and provided useful information that may lead to new treatments.

The work involves 16 researchers across four schools at the University of Bristol, investigators from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Universities of Manchester and Oxford. Eczema – an itchy dry-skin condition – affects one in five children and one in 12 adults in the UK and research has shown that genes play an important role in determining how likely we are to develop it. However, the majority of the genes that cause the condition have yet to be detected. Now, in the largest genetic study of eczema in the world to date, the group of international researchers led by Dr Lavinia Paternoster from the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, has combined data on 377,000 participants involved in 40 research studies worldwide, including the Bristol-based Children of the 90s.

The team used a technique called genome-wide association analysis to look at the genomes of the 377,000 people and to identify small changes in the genes commonly found in people with eczema.  They found ten new variants, bringing the total number of variants known to be related to eczema to 31. What all the new genetic variants have in common is that they all play a role in regulating the immune system, which the team says highlights potential new targets for therapeutic research for eczema. The researchers also found some evidence of genetic overlap between eczema and other diseases like inflammatory bowel disease.  This finding suggests that studying these diseases together could give important insights into the mechanisms of disease and potentially identify new treatments.

Dr Paternoster said: “Though the genetic variants identified in this current study represent only a small proportion of the risk for developing eczema and are in no way deterministic, rather they slightly increase your risk, they do give new insights into important disease mechanisms and through on-going research in this area these findings could be turned into treatments of the future.” Dr Sara Brown, an academic dermatologist who contributed to the research from the University of Dundee, said: “Eczema runs in families so we know that genetic factors are an important part of the cause.  “The very large numbers of participants in this research has allowed us to fine tune our understanding of eczema genetic risk, providing more detail on how the skin immune system can go wrong in eczema.”