Nobody likes being itchy, but for people with conditions such as eczema, it can be quite a serious problem. Scientists at EMBL Rome (the European Molecular Biology Laboratory) may be onto a long-acting solution, in the form of light-activated medication that is injected into the skin.

When we have an itching sensation, it's produced by specialized nerve cells in the surface of the skin, which may be triggered by a variety of factors.

Led by Paul Heppenstall and Linda Nocchi, an EMBL Rome team developed an injectable chemical that binds only to those cells. Once that chemical is exposed to harmless near-infrared light – through the skin – it causes the cells to withdraw from the skin's surface. Other nerve cells, such as those that allow people to feel sensations such as heat, cold, pain or vibrations, aren't affected.

In lab tests on mice afflicted with eczema and a genetic skin disease known as amyloidosis, treatment with the chemical caused them to stop itching for up to several months. Not only did they stop feeling itchy, but because they no longer scratched at their skin, it became less inflamed and began to heal – one problem with itch-causing conditions is the fact that the itching is only made worse by skin damage that occurs from scratching.

The scientists now plan on conducting tests on human tissue.

"We hope that one day, our method will be able to help humans suffering from a disease like eczema, which causes chronic itching," says Heppenstall. "We want to collaborate with industry partners to develop therapies for humans, but also for veterinary medicine, as itch is a major problem in dogs as well."

A paper on the research was published this week in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.