The holidays are behind us, and the vast expanse of 2023 is ahead! We head into the new year with a lot of encouraging news. The possibility of an inexpensive and accessible preventative treatment for children at risk of developing eczema is one bit of good news we can end the year on. Researchers have shared surprising discoveries concerning hearing loss, chronic inflammation, and long covid, and a new and effective treatment for a potentially fatal congenital immune deficiency emerged at the close of the year, as well.
Childhood Eczema: Benefits Of Moisturizing
If you’re familiar with Dr. Harlan’s work, you know how important it is to keep our skin hydrated and well-moisturized. A newly published study shows that moisturizers may not just help eczema-prone skin heal faster–they might also be an effective preventative for infants at high risk of developing this common skin disorder. While the study’s authors acknowledge that the study has limits, this is encouraging for parents who want to save their children the discomfort caused by eczema.
Alarm Proteins: Chronic Inflammation and Immune Response
Speaking of the skin, a recent study on chronic inflammation seems to have turned a commonly-accepted assumption about the role a specific protein plays in our immune system on its head–and also suggests that the skin’s role in the immune response is even more important and nuanced than previously thought.
Proteins called interleukins act as “alarm proteins” that trigger immune responses to antigens. One of these alarm proteins, called Interleukin-37, has commonly been believed to suppress inflammation; researchers at Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin have found that Interleukin-37 seems instead to drive inflammation. Interleukin-37–which has no analog in any other species–is now one of four interleukins known to bind to a receptor in the skin associated with the development of psoriasis.
Professor Seamus Martin, who led the research, says; “Why there are so many interleukins that bind to the same receptor is a mystery, but if we were to speculate it may be because this receptor serves a very important sentinel function in our skin, and that one alarm protein may simply not be enough to respond to the many different infectious agents that our skin encounters.”
“Our skin,” Dr. Martin reminds us, “is the major barrier between our bodies and the outside world that microbes must breach if they are to gain entry to our bodies and, in many respects, represents the first line of defense in our immune systems.”
Another immune-system-related discovery could bring hope to people born with a rare and devastating immune deficiency called Artemis-SCID. Artemis-SCID (Artemis-deficient Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) leads to extreme susceptibility to infection, and without treatment, children born with it rarely survive past the age of two. Even with treatment, children with this disorder tend to lead very sheltered lives because their bodies cannot defend them against even minor infections. This has led Artemis-SCID to be called “bubble baby disease” colloquially.
Until now, the primary treatment for Artemis-SCID has been bone marrow transplant–a treatment that is highly effective for most SCID patients but is much less effective for Artemis-SCID. However, as reported in the December 22 issue of New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at University of California in San Francisco have successfully treated ten Artemis-SCID children with “gene editing” therapy. They report that all of these children are under age five, and all are currently leading normal lives that allow them to play outside and attend preschool. This definitely ends 2022 on a high note, and gives us cause to hope for related breakthroughs in 2023.
Long Covid: Reactivation of Dormant Viruses
Speaking of infection, the Covid 19 virus has undeniably caused a lot of suffering over the past two years. Many have contracted a mild form of the virus only to find themselves debilitated by fatigue, post-exertional malaise, and other new and confounding symptoms when the disease passes. So-called “long covid” has confounded patients and physicians alike for two years, now.
A new report suggests that the virus reactivates dormant viruses, such as Eppstein-Barre, in some people. For many, long covid might not be just a prolonged struggle against the ravages of one virus, but the reactivation of several others.
While these latent viruses and their antibodies have been discovered in patients suffering from long covid symptoms, there is not currently any agreement on how they are activated, what role they play in symptoms, or how to address these reactivated viral reservoirs. Studies examining this phenomenon are now beginning, though, and those studies might possibly yield treatments for long covid that don’t currently exist.
Extra Health News: Hearing Loss and Ambient Noise
In non-immune-system related news, scientists have found that hearing loss in people over age 65 is more complex than previously thought. Age-related hearing loss is pervasive, and it can be isolating and frustrating for those who deal with it. For years, scientists chalked it up to damage to hair cells on the inner ear. Researchers at Johns-Hopkins have found that there is much more to it than that. While the cellular damage to the ear’s structure plays its role, the study’s authors tell us “there’s more to hearing than the ear.”
Using mice, researchers discovered that the ability to hear over ambient noise requires the activation of some auditory neurons while others are silenced. In test subjects with hearing loss, a “misfiring” in this synchronization led to difficulty distinguishing sounds in situations with a lot of background noise.
Overall, these discoveries are deserving of a toast as we head into the new year. Some have revolutionized the lives of children; others hint at greater discoveries to come. There’s light on the horizon as we put 2022 behind us. +Best wishes to all our readers for a happy and healthy 2023!
- Zula Elwood