Why Do Sunburns Hurt Anyway?

By Medical Discovery News

March 31, 2012

Why Do Sunburns Hurt Anyway?

 

Today, many people are pretty good at slapping on some sunscreen when heading outside, but years back when sunscreen wasn’t so pervasive, getting sunburned on the neck was common. And it hurt!

 

Research now shows the pain that comes with a sunburn may be associated with a molecule called CXCL5, which seems to control sensitivity to pain from UVB radiation.

 

The sun emits UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVC is the longest wavelength and the most harmful, but is blocked by the ozone layer, while some of UVB and all of UVA reach the earth’s surface and is harmful to human health. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer, cataracts, suppression of the immune system and premature aging of the skin. 

 

Scientists have known for some time that CXCL5 is one of a family of proteins called chemokines that modulate the immune response. It promotes healing by recruiting immune cells to the injury and now the latest study shows that CXCL5 also stimulates pain receptors. That means it’s responsible for feeling the pain of a sunburn.

 

Researchers at King’s College London made this discovery in a study with healthy volunteers. They exposed small areas of participants’ skin to UVB rays. After several hours the area became sensitive, but the peak of the sunburn, when it was most painful, came one to two days later. When researchers took tissue samples from the sunburned area they found much more CXCL5 in sunburned skin compared to unburned skin. It was especially high in people who complained the most about pain. 

 

Researchers found the same results when they duplicated the test on rats. Then they injected the rodents with pure CXCL5 to find that the animals’ skin became hypersensitive to touch, partly because CXCL5 recruits inflammatory immune cells called neutrophils and macrophages. These cells in turn secrete more CXCL5 and other molecules involved in pain stimulation.

 

To see if by counteracting CXCL5, the pain would subside, researchers injected antibodies against the molecule and voila, the pain was reduced.

 

What’s significant about the findings is they suggest CXCL5 and proteins like it could be involved in persistent pain that comes with other inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis and bladder infections.

 

Learning how these molecules work could help scientists design new drugs for people who suffer from these types of chronic pain. Often the symptoms lower a person’s quality of life and can cripple their ability to perform basic functions.

 

To determine whether CXCL5 and other chemokines are present in these other inflammatory diseases, researchers will need to sample tissues from patients to determine how much of a role they play in pain sensitivity. If they’re over expressed as they are with sunburns, scientists may indeed be onto something.

 

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Imagine nanoparticles many times smaller than the human cell delivering cancer-fighting drugs directly to tumors, microscopic chips that can detect cancer cells roaming the blood stream, or super-fast lasers diagnosing eye diseases that are tough to detect and cause blindness. These discoveries are possible through an innovative approach transforming science called convergence.

Convergence is the coming together of diverse disciplines – from basic biochemistry and cell biology to computer science and engineering. The result is a completely new way of thinking by taking strengths from each specialty and creating innovative products and medical treatments.

A prime example of this integrated approach is seen at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, which arguably leads the convergence revolution. An award-winning materials engineer from the institute is working with the school’s cancer scientists. Together, they’re developing a virus that can build microscopic electronic parts. This virus produced wiring that could provide the circuitry and power for implantable medical devices in the future.

This is just one of many pairings or teams that share not only their expertise, but workspace. Engineers and biologists are placed together on each of the seven floors of a research building so that they can bump into one another. Increasingly, universities across the country are rethinking their organizational structure to mirror this integrated approach to research.

Scientists call convergence the third revolution in modern biology, just as profound as the first revolution when DNA’s structure was discovered almost 60 years ago. It launched the field of molecular biology, expanded the understanding of cell biology, and started the commercial biotechnology industry. Just think of technologies like polymerase chain reaction, often featured in TV shows such as “CSI” for the crimes it helps solve. This technology can also diagnose infectious diseases and even cancer.  

The second revolution, just 10 years ago, came with the complete sequencing of the human genome. Armed with this new knowledge, scientists cleared up or solved mysteries in basic biology and disease. They developed new applications in gene therapy, bioinformatics and systems biology to manage previously untreatable diseases.

Now with convergence, scientists believe discoveries will be accelerated, not just in medical science but in solving future food, energy, and security needs. At the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, microbiologists are already working with biomedical engineers and physical scientists to develop miniature devices to detect the Ebola virus and other microbes that could be used for bioterrorism. Elsewhere, scientists and engineers are harnessing single cell algae as factories to produce biodiesel. 

What people may not realize is the economic payoff of these innovations. The $23 billion spent on biomedical research in 2007, most of which is done in universities, led to more than $50 billion in goods and services. In the past 30 years, the US government’s investment of $44 per person annually in research funding has lengthened the average life expectancy of Americans by six years.

With proper funding, scientists believe the convergence of life, engineering and physical sciences will create countless opportunities to improve lives around the world. It is a change that has already begun and will be exciting to watch.

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