A Brand New Poison Ivy Vaccine is in the Works; here is What We Know So Far.
Vaccine: The word spoken and heard by most Americans at least ten times daily this past year, yet not usually preceded by “Poison Ivy.” Working at Duke University, biochemist Sven- Eric Jordt heads a team of researchers investigating pain and itch mechanisms, studying the unpleasant sensations of Toxicodendron radicans, better known as poison ivy. Jordt reveals that contact dermatitis (the red rash received from poison ivy) is usually treated by local doctors and rarely shown attention or mass funding. Author of ‘A Vaccine Against Poison Ivy Misery Is In The Works,’ Claudia Wells states, “given the toll in suffering and dollars, you would think serious attention would be paid to this worsening public health issue, you’d be wrong.” When pharmaceutical companies recognized more money was to be made on drugs for chronic skin conditions like eczema, they felt no need to research effective treatments on a temporary rash.
Having never personally contracted poison ivy, I cannot describe the exact feelings of pain or irritation, but to quote a good friend, “it would be less painful for my skin to be set on fire.” Now I must state that this friend did have an extreme reaction to poison ivy, they pitched their tent in a field of the poisonous plant, yet severe reactions are more common than most might assume. Every year 10 – 50 million Americans contract poison ivy and suffer for an average of 2-3 weeks. Research obtained in a six-year study at Duke University found that an increase of carbon dioxide, i.e., climate change, causes the poison ivy plant to produce a more potent allergenic form of Urushiol, the resin responsible for the rash. With increased concerns regarding climate change, it appears odd that Jordt is one of few who take this rash seriously.
Currently, the main treatment methods of antihistamines and cortisone cream do the rash very little justice. This is because our body’s reaction to Urushiol has no relationship to histamines, rendering antihistamines useless. In explaining this information to my dad, he agreed that all of the efforts recommended to him when he got poison ivy, a little less than two years ago, proved ineffective. To solve this, Sven Jordt and his colleagues began to analyze receptors that matched with proteins that showed inflammation from Urushiol.
In biology, receptors are proteins that receive signals by bonding with molecules known as ligands to send a specific message onward. A cell’s response depends on the types of receptors present, and each cell has its own number and type of receptor that allows them to act differently to various stimuli. Regarding poison ivy, Jordt and his team discovered that interleukin 33, an immune chemical in the body, is the main culprit behind the symptom of itchy skin. Jordt and his team of researchers are currently testing antibodies against IL-33, such as ST2, in primary sensory neurons. If ST2 could effectively block IL-33’s receptors, the necessity to scratch would virtually disappear. “This is all very new information,” Dermatologist Brain Kim, co-director of the Center for the Study of Itch & Sensory Disorders at Washington University in St. Louis, states. In the past, scientists believed that both the rash and itch from poison ivy were triggered by the immune system’s T cells. Further studies, however, have shown that the inflamed rash and itch sensation come from two different places entirely; It is believed “T cells do cause the inflamed rash of poison ivy but that these other pathways provoke the itch.” (Brian Kim)
While human research has been challenging to complete due to a lack of study funding, a compound called PDC-APB, a small synthetic molecule derived from active urushiol components, is being developed into a vaccine to prevent painful contact dermatitis.
As stated earlier, I have thankfully never had poison ivy myself, and I would like to keep it that way. As someone who goes on Sunday hikes through the woods with my family, contracting poison ivy is a constant fear of mine and leaves me wearing pants while walking in the July heat. I think a vaccine would be a fantastic option for someone who spends much of their time in places of possible poison ivy. The only question would be, is this the solution to our itchy problem?