Taking the Burn Out of Sunburn

Jake Warga/Corbis

It may be too late to make much difference this summer, but a far-flung team of scientists working with Duke University neurobiology professor Wolfgang Liedtke have identified the specific molecule in human skin that registers the pain of sunburn—and they've also found a way to block it. The findings, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focus on a molecule designated TRPV4, which serves as a gateway to cell membranes. The research showed that exposure to ultraviolet rays activates TRPV4, which in turn sets off a sequence of events culminating with the influx of another molecule that causes pain and itching. TRPV4 has been the object of extensive pharmaceutical research in recent years, and a compound called GSK205 has proved to inhibit its effects. In tests on mice, Liedtke and his team determined that it worked to stop the pain of a sunburn. But, of course, that would be of dubious benefit if it led people to toast their skin while remaining oblivious to the damage to their bodies, including an increased risk of skin cancer. "I think we should be cautious," says Liedtke. The long-term hope is that this research will lead to ways that sun-damaged skin can be repaired.