Ethan A. Lerner, M.D., Ph.D.

Ethan A. Lerner, M.D., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Dermatology Harvard Medical School Associate Biologist (Dermatology) Massachusetts General Hospital


Massachusetts General Hospital
Cutaneous Biology Research Center
Building 149, 13th Street
Charlestown, MA 02129
Tel: (617) 726-4439
Fax: (617) 724-4453

We study itch. Our goal is to understand the mechanisms that underlie the sensation of itch in order to develop effective anti-itch therapies.

Itch is an unpleasant sensory experience leading to the desire to scratch. Itch can be so severe as to be disabling. It is a widespread symptom of both skin disease and systemic disease as manifest in the skin. Common conditions in which the sensation of itch is initiated in the periphery include atopic dermatitis or eczema, psoriasis, contact dermatitis, fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and parasitic infestations such as scabies. Kidney failure and certain liver conditions are often associated with severe itching. Itch can occur in lung cancer and may be an early symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. More than 50% of people over 70 years of age have itching without a known cause but it is not simply from having dry skin.

Itch is the most common symptom encountered by dermatologists and one of the most challenging problems to treat. Itch is difficult to treat because it is poorly understood and drugs, such as antihistamines, do not usually target the underlying cause.

Our approach to itch started with our identification of the active component of itching powder. Itching powder consists of little hairs, or spicules, that cover the pods of a plant, Mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage. The active component is called mucunain, We determined that mucunain is a type of protein called a protease, or enzyme. Proteases cut other proteins. Mucunain contains the amino acid cysteine at its active site and is thus considered a cysteine protease. Several other cysteine proteases from plants also cause itching. These include bromelain from pineapples, ficin from figs, and papain from papaya. Papain is the enzyme that in meat tenderizer.

We asked if there was a human enzyme similar to mucunain. We determined that there was, by using data from sequencing of the human genome. The human enzyme is called cathepsin S. When put into the skin, cathepsin S causes itching, just like itching powder.

We next sought to determine how cathepsin S and mucanain cause itch. We suspected that these enzymes were likely to turn on a molecule called a receptor present on skin cells called keratinocytes and on nerves in the skin. We found that cathepsin S and mucunain turn on a receptor called protease-activated receptor 2 or PAR2. Turning on PAR2 results may in a signal being sent from the skin to the brain that could lead to the sensation of itch, as shown in the animation.

Our most recent data suggests that cathepsin S has a role in clinical itch. We plan to extend these studies and begin to ask: Can blocking cathepsin S or PAR2 prevent or relieve itch?


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Selected Publications

Reddy VB, Iuga AO, Shimada S, LaMotte RH, Lerner EA. Cowhage evoked itch is mediated by a novel cysteine protease - a ligand of protease activated receptors. J Neuroscience 2008; 28:4331-4335.

Reddy VB, Shimada SG, Sikand P, Lamotte RH, Lerner EA. Cathepsin S elicits itch and signals via protease-activated receptors. J Invest Dermatol 2010; 130:1468-1470.

Reddy VB, Lerner EA. Plant cysteine proteases that evoke itch activate protease-activated receptors. Brit J Dermatol. May, 2010. [Epub ahead of print]


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