A researcher at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy has been awarded a four-year, $1.9 million grant to study a topic that impacts many workers on the job – skin irritations that arise due to contact with a variety of chemicals.
As we all know, the workplace can be a place with hazards--not just because of falls or accidents, but also because of contact with industrial chemicals. Those chemicals can produce an acute inflammatory response in the skin called contact dermatitis.
"It’s very common and there’s very little research that’s been done to look at this,” said lead researcher Randy Gallucci, Ph.D., an associate professor in the OU College of Pharmacy. “Contact dermatitis is the second most common reason for lost work, reduced productivity on the job and time away from work. It’s that prevalent.”
Contact dermatitis is one of the top 10 reasons for patient visits to their primary care physicians and 8 in 10 of those cases is caused by an irritant as opposed to an allergic reaction.
“Irritant contact dermatitis is a skin reaction that looks a bit like a burn. The skin may appear dry, red and rough. Cuts or cracks may also form on the hands,” said Dr. Pamela Allen, a dermatologist with OU Physicians. “It’s triggered by contact with acids, alkaline substances like soaps or detergents, fabric softeners, solvents or other chemicals.”
There are hundreds of substances alleged to cause contact dermatitis. Exposure to these substances can produce contact dermatitis.
A few of the more commonly used substances are the detergent SLS (found in everything from bathroom cleaners to shampoos) and the disinfectant benzalkonium chloride used in hand wipes.
Allen said irritant dermatitis usually clears up without complications in 2 or 3 weeks if the offending agent is avoided. However, it may return if the substance or material that caused it cannot be found or avoided.
With the grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Gallucci and his team will study why susceptibility to this type of dermatitis varies among workers.
"One of our main aims is to try to figure out what the difference is. For example, why some people have problems with detergents and other people do not," he said.
Gallucci and his team of researchers will focus on the role played by Interleukin 6, an immune protein produced by most cells in the body, which is associated with skin healing and protection. Gallucci calls IL-6 “an immune messenger."
“When a white blood cell, for example, detects bacteria or damage to the skin, it makes IL-6 to summon help,” he said.
The effects of Interleukin 6 can be unpredictable depending on where it is produced in the body. In the skin, though, it appears to have an anti-inflammatory function.
The long-term goal of the OU team’s research is two-fold.
"The first goal would be to help identify workers who might be susceptible to these contact irritants so they can take proper or specialized precautions,” Gallucci said. “In addition, we would hope to be able to use what we know about IL-6 to develop a treatment like a lotion or something similar that would help increase the skins’ defense against these irritants."
None of this will happen overnight, however, Gallucci emphasized. As with most pharmaceuticals, he estimates the development of a novel protective lotion based upon the team’s research might take up to a decade to move from the laboratory through the Food and Drug Administration approval process and finally to market.