What can they be thinking?

August 27, 2013

The following item caught my attention recently:

Huffington Post: Sunburn Pain Relief – Could This New Discovery Soothe The Burn?

The actual scientific study on which the above article was based is published in a very highly respected journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
UVB radiation generates sunburn pain and affects skin by activating epidermal TRPV4 ion channels and triggering endothelin-1 signaling

The actual science here is impeccable. The research reports that a molecule, TRPV4, is involved in producing the pain of sunburn, and that a newly designed compound targeting this molecule inhibited the pain and blistering of sunburn in a mouse model. The implication is that such a compound could eventually be used to attenuate the burning and blistering of sunburn in humans.

Well, maybe.

The development of sunburn pain, like any pain, is a very complex cascade; this study shows that TRPV4 is an important part of that cascade. This is exciting new information, which has implications beyond sunburn. However, there are other well-known components of this cascade, including something called the “prostaglandin pathway.” We already know how to inhibit prostaglandin-mediated pain and inflammation: the use of “non steroidal antiinflammatory drugs” (NSAIDS), of which ibuprofen is perhaps best known. It has been known for a long time that taking ibuprofen or similar agents right after excessive sun exposure markedly reduces pain and blistering.

The issue is that the pain and blistering of sunburn is really only a small part of the problem. The UV light which produces the sunburn also damages DNA in cells of the skin. This damage can ultimately lead to the development of skin cancers such as melanoma. As I have pointed out in other writings, melanoma caused by sunburn is the most common cause of death in outdoor recreation. Ibuprofen, or some expensive new TRPV4 antagonist, may well minimize the acute pain of sunburn. It would do nothing to prevent skin cancer. Sunburn is our body’s way of saying “You jerk! Don’t you know that you are setting yourself up for cancer?” Why would we want to do anything to take away from this important message?