Updated 07 November 2013

Molecule behind sunburn pain identified

Sunburn redness and pain is caused by a molecule that is abundant in the outermost layers of cells in the skin, a new study finds.


Scientists have identified a molecule which is responsible for the pain and redness that's caused by sunburn.

Conducted in mice and human skin samples, the research also found that blocking this molecule, called TRPV4, greatly reduces the pain associated with sunburn.

The findings could lead to new ways to treat pain caused by sunburn and possibly other reasons, according to the authors of the study published online Aug. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We have uncovered a [new] explanation for why sunburn hurts," senior study author Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke, an associate professor of neurology and neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine, said. "If we understand sunburn better, we can understand pain better because what plagues my patients day in and day out is what temporarily affects otherwise healthy people who suffer from sunburn."

Sunburn and skin cancer

Sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer. Most cases of sunburn are caused by ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation in sunlight. This study found that TRPV4 plays an important role in the pain caused by UVB-related sunburn.

Study co-senior author Dr. Martin Steinhoff, a professor of dermatology and surgery at the University of California in San Francisco, discussed practical implications of the new findings.

"The results position TRPV4 as a new target for preventing and treating sunburn, and probably chronic sun damage including skin cancer or skin photo-aging, though more work must be done before TRPV4 inhibitors can become part of the sun defence arsenal, perhaps in new kinds of skin cream, or to treat chronic sun damage," Steinhoff said.

"I think we should be cautious because we want to see what inhibition of TRPV4 will do to other processes going on in the skin," co-author Liedtke added. "Once these concerns will be addressed, we will need to adapt TRPV4 blockers to make them more suitable for topical application. I could imagine it being mixed with traditional sunblock to provide stronger protections against UVB exposure."

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers tips for staying safe in the sun.


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