Background: Pruritus is the most common and distressing skin symptom, and treatment of itch is a problem for thousands of people. The currently available therapies are not very effective. Therefore there is an urgent need to find new effective topical drugs against itching.
Objective: We conducted two separate studies to evaluate the efficacy of topically applied naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist, in the treatment of severe pruritus. The objective of the first open study was to correlate the clinical efficacy of topically applied naltrexone in different pruritic skin disorders to a change of epidermal mu-opiate receptor (MOR) expression. The second study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study on pruritus in atopic dermatitis.
Methods: Initially we performed an open pilot study on 18 patients with different chronic pruritic disorders using a topical formulation of 1% naltrexone for 2 weeks. A punch biopsy was performed in 11 patients before and after the application of the naltrexone cream and the staining of epidermal MOR was measured. Subsequently, a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial was performed with the same formulation. We included in this trial 40 patients with localized and generalized atopic dermatitis with severe pruritus.
Results: In the open study more than 70% of the patients using the 1% naltrexone cream experienced a significant reduction of pruritus. More interestingly, the topical treatment with naltrexone caused an increase of epidermal MOR staining. The regulation of the epidermal opioid receptor correlated with the clinical assessment. The placebo-controlled, crossover trial demonstrated clearly that the cream containing naltrexone had an overall 29.4% better effect compared with placebo. The formulation containing naltrexone required a median of 46 minutes to reduce the itch symptoms to 50%; the placebo, 74 minutes.
Limitations: We could only take biopsy specimens in 11 patients, which means that a satisfactory statistical analysis of the changes of epidermal MOR staining was not possible. In addition, there was an insufficient number of patients with nephrogenic pruritus and pruritic psoriasis to draw definitive conclusions.
Conclusions: The placebo-controlled study showed a significant advantage of topically applied naltrexone over the placebo formulation. This finding is supported by the biopsy results from the open studies, showing a regulation of MOR expression in epidermis after treatment with topical naltrexone, especially in atopic dermatitis. These results clearly show potential for topically applied opioid receptor antagonist in the treatment of pruritus. The placebo formulation also had some antipruritic effects. This underlines the importance of rehydration therapy for dry skin in the treatment of pruritus.