BY HEIDI EVANS
For the last three years, Neal Patel thought he was going to lose his mind from itching — suffering through a skin condition that made for miserable days and sleepless nights The 25-year-old medical student has been tortured by severe eczema on and off since childhood.
In the latest flare-up, which began during his second year at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, he stopped dating and going out with friends, embarrassed to be seen. Red scaly lesions erupted on his face, arms, hands, trunk and legs. His bed sheets were bloodied from picking at his skin for relief.
Until Dr. Emma Guttman-Yassky, a rising star dermatologist and investigative researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, came into his life.
Patel read about her groundbreaking research into atopic dermatitis, as eczema is medically known, and called to see if he could enroll in one of her ongoing clinical trials. “I am indebted to Dr. Guttman,” Patel said. “She has pretty much saved my life.”
Guttman-Yassky, 40, is in the forefront of major advances in the understanding and treatment of eczema. In her laboratory at Rockefeller University and now at Mount Sinai, she has identified the molecules that cause the inflammatory skin disease and targeted drugs to treat it.
She also discovered a unique lymphocyte “Th22” — and its possible role in atopic dermatitis.
“She really is changing the world,” said Dr. Mark Lebwohl, the chief of dermatology at Mount Sinai and president of the American Academy of Dermatology.
I am indebted to Dr. Guttman. She has pretty much saved my life.
Until now, the common treatments for severe eczema were powerful systemic steroids, like prednisone, which can have terrible side effects, and cyclosporine, a broad immune-suppressing drug that turns off an entire immune system and can permanently damage the kidneys, increase blood pressure and increase cancers.
The new drugs Guttman-Yassky is testing target only a very small part of the immune system. If successful, they could be available to the public within a few years.
Guttman-Yassky’s interest in internal medicine and dermatology has been personal as well as professional. She herself had eczema as a child growing up in Romania and Israel.
“The molecular maps or pathways that are activated in eczema had not been well defined,” Guttman-Yassky said. “It was not clear whether it was a disease of immune activation or if the outer layer of the skin was deficient. We now understand that the disease is primarily immune driven … which makes it much easier to cure.”
Guttman-Yassky is the principal investigator in several crucial drug trials for patients with moderate to severe eczema — including one funded by the National Institutes of Health for $2.7 million.
“I think these drugs could be a revolutionary change for patients who have suffered for so long,” said Guttman-Yassky, who describes herself as a medical Sherlock Holmes.
Eczema affects 30 million Americans, including 15% of the children in the country. The good news is that most children will outgrow it by age 10 and many will outgrow it by age 5.
Patel, after just two weeks in the drug trial, is already seeing progress. “I am clearing up, I am itching less, I am sleeping better,” Patel said. “I haven’t felt this good in three years. I feel so lucky.”