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Sunburn isn’t all bad: Researchers tap into healing power

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Sunburn isn't all bad finds new research.

In a first study researchers have discovered the mechanism of sunburn. The inflammation that ensues after UV exposure isn’t all bad because it starts a healing process. Understanding what happens to damaged RNA in skin cells could lead to new treatments for medical conditions.

Tapping in to the healing process of sunburn

Researchers from the University of California San Diego have newly discovered that sunburn starts an inflammatory process that aids healing.

When skin RNA is damaged from UV exposure the skin gets red and painful because a healthy inflammatory response begins that helps repair damage.

The scientists for the current study suggest blocking inflammation and tapping into the healing mechanism associated with sunburn could help treat a wide range conditions, like psoriasis and lupus.

Richard L. Gallo, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System said in a media release, “Our discovery suggests a way to get the beneficial effects of UV therapy without actually exposing our patients to the harmful UV light. Also, some people have excess sensitivity to UV light, patients with lupus, for example. We are exploring if we can help them by blocking the pathway we discovered.”

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In the study, the scientists found that UV radiation releases a special type of RNA that signals healthy neighboring cells to start the healing inflammatory response that is the hallmark of a sunburn.

The problem says Gallo, is that “…this process is imperfect and with more UV exposure, there is more chance of cells becoming cancerous. He adds, “For example, diseases like psoriasis are treated by UV light, but a big side effect is that this treatment increases the risk of skin cancer.”

The next step is to figure out how genes affect individual response to sunburn. People also have skin pigmentation and genetic factors that influence their risk factors for skin cancer that can change how people get sunburned, just like mice used in the studies.

Understanding more about the skin’s innate defense against sunburn and the mechanism behind the healing process that occurs after UV ray exposure could lead to new treatments for diseases like psoriasis, which is also now linked to type 2 diabetes, lupus and other inflammatory diseases.

UC San Diego
July 9, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile