March 17, 2000 (San Francisco) -- A new class of medications to treat eczema may soon hit the market, according to researchers at a dermatology meeting. These new treatments are very effective and do not have the long-term side effects, such as damage to the skin, that are seen with the currently available steroid creams and ointments.
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, afflicts 6% of all Americans -- 15 million adults and children -- with red and inflamed patches of skin that are uncontrollably itchy. The condition burdens mostly children, and although nearly half of them outgrow the condition, the rest suffer with it their entire lives.
Although prescription treatments are available, no new topical medications specifically for eczema have been introduced in more than four decades. Now, a new type of drugs, called topical immunomodulators (TIMs), is showing encouraging results in human studies. Like steroids, these new medications calm down the overactive immune system that is the cause of the skin condition associated with eczema. However, unlike steroid creams and ointments, they do not appear to cause the thinning of the skin that makes the skin more susceptible to sun damage. Dermatologists learned about the new treatment this week at the 58th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) here in San Francisco.
"Finally, after 40 years, a [new] option that appears [to be] very safe," dermatologist and researcher Amy Paller, MD, tells WebMD. "[Development of] this new class of drugs is extremely exciting." Paller is a pediatric dermatologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Two TIMs are in development, tacrolimus and ascomycin, and unlike many current eczema creams and ointments, they are steroid-free. The new class of drugs has been tested in 2,000 children and adults, and "it looks very effective," Paller says. Currently undergoing approval by the FDA, researchers expect TIMs will be available later this year.
For many, the launch of TIMs can't come soon enough. Since 1970, the incidence of eczema has nearly tripled. "Physicians, adult patients, and parents of young children with eczema are always looking for new treatment options that relieve the discomfort of this condition," Paller says. The beauty of the new agent, she says, is that, in contrast to topical steroids, TIMs have shown no evidence of side effects.
"Eczema is a life-altering disease that must be taken seriously," says Guy Webster, MD, in a press release issued to WebMD. "While its causes remain unclear, we now know that patients have defects in one or more of their genes. Environmental irritants, allergens, and stress provoke skin flares." Webster is a dermatologist at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Paller stresses that TIMs represent a suppressive type of therapy, not a cure. "Eczema is a life-altering disease, not just a rash," she says. "Kids can't sleep, parents get grumpy; anything we can do to disrupt that cycle of disruption, we'll try to do."
In the meantime, dermatologists point out that the best offense against eczema is a good defense. They say the key is to help prevent or defend against inflammation. The AAD recommends that patients manage stress, apply soothing skin moisturizers, and watch for affected patches that can trigger flare-ups. Also, it's best to avoid overheating and exercising when a flare-up begins.
Paller suggests that if you think you or your child has eczema, seek care by a physician. If it's more severe, see a dermatologist. Most important, she says, is to "be on the lookout for the TIMs. The development of this whole new class of drugs is very exciting, and the future will ensure its safety, right down to [newborns]."
- Eczema is a condition that causes red and inflamed patches of skin that are uncontrollably itchy, and it affects 15 million Americans.
- A new class of drugs, called topical immunomodulators, has been shown to be effective against eczema without the side affects associated with older, steroid medications.
- Researchers expect the new drugs to be available later this year.